November 18, 2017

Shades of Profscam | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

A new book looks at what’s wrong with higher ed, and it might just make a difference.

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When I was taking courses in higher education administration in the 1990s one of the required readings of the day was Profscam. Have you read it? If not, look it up in your library catalog. It’s probably on the shelf. Charles Sykes, the author, basically predicted the collapse of higher education owing to the shenanigans of conman faculty who cared more about getting ahead in their own discipline—or simply milking the tenure system—than the betterment of their own institution or their students. In other words, it was an extremely unflattering portrayal of faculty. Put simply, he argued that they were pulling off one of the biggest scams this country has ever seen and someone or some government had to put it to a stop by making faculty accountable to their institutions and for their students’ academic success.

While it was outrageously controversial at the time and frequently despised on college campuses, Syke’s book ultimately did little to create the change he hoped it would. My professor for that course, George Keller—who always told us that to really understand any book you had to know something about the author and his or her background—shared that Sykes was a disgruntled journalist with an axe to grind against higher education. Many in the academy discounted what Sykes had to say. But now a new pair of authors is picking up where Sykes left off. Will they be more successful?

This time it’s from insiders
Although it’s not yet available for purchase, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It (Holt/Times Bks., August) is already creating a buzz in and beyond the Ivory Tower [See LJ‘s review here, under Nonfiction—Ed.]. Unlike Sykes, the authors are higher education insiders. Andrew Hacker is a professor emeritus in Sociology at Queens College, and his co-author, Claudia Dreifus, is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

That’s likely to make quite a difference because this time the argument’s critics will find it difficult to portray it as a sensationalistic effort to sell books based on an outsider’s dubious claims—which is exactly what faculty claimed about Profscam. Hacker and Dreifus appear motivated by something else entirely: a desire to see a broken system get fixed. So what is it they’d like the general public to know about the failure of the higher education system, and what can be done to set things right?

Old wine in a new bottle
In an interview in Atlantic magazine
, Hacker spoke about the motivation behind the book, and some of the major concerns he and Dreifus share about the decline of higher education. I think that if Sykes were to read them he’d say, “That’s exactly the point I was trying to make in my book.” For example, Hacker says that students are being shortchanged by professors who:

…are identifying with their arcane disciplines, the minutiae, the esoteric research. Schools get status by bringing on professors who are star researchers, star scholars. That’s all we really know about Caltech or MIT or Stanford. We don’t really know about the quality of undergraduate teaching at any of these places. And it’s the students who suffer.

He points out that the students know it, and those at elite institutions care not a whit. All that matters to them is the brand and the leverage it will bring for status and career success.

Based on what Hacker has to say, you can expect the book to offer a fairly strong argument for doing away with or seriously rethinking tenure. Since it emphasizes research and publication over teaching—and also serves as a dominant system for creating star professors who create another set of problems—the tenure system destabilizes higher education. You can probably guess what they have to say about college sports.

The book also takes on the ratcheting up of the academic administrative layer at the expense of faculty, along with the amenities arms race in which institutions compete to see who can add the best rock climbing walls and luxury dorms. While there are a fair number of commonalities between Profscam and Higher Education?, the new offering is less rabid and sensationalistic, and promises to offer practical solutions. I’ll be most interested to see how the professoriate reacts to it. Will they take it seriously or dismiss it, as they did Profscam, as more claptrap from detractors?

Part of the problem or the solution
As I was writing this column a friend tweeted about the book and raised this question: “I’m curious to see if it mentions libraries?” Great question. My guess is that it won’t (and the Table of Contents agrees). Higher education has a whole boatload of problems to confront, and this book seems to stick to the biggest elephants in the room. Libraries, I imagine, are less likely to make the list of crushing, overwhelmingly challenging, wickedly serious problems bringing higher education to its knees. But it makes an interesting challenge to think what if…what if the authors did choose to include even just a few paragraphs about the academic library. What would they say?

The good news is that as a profession, we are not waiting for someone to do a Profscam treatment of the library. Multiple initiatives are underway to gather evidence that the academic library is a highly productive unit that contributes to both the economic and scholarly health of the institution. There is a reason for the question mark after the term “higher education” in the title of this new book. The authors question if there is anything “higher” or “educational” about the current system. We may have our own biases, but I think we are on safe ground to make the claim that our academic libraries continue to put the “higher” into higher education. That said, let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard. A new threat to our sustainable future is always just around the corner.


Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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