The De-Professionalization of the Academy

The De-Professionalization of the Academy

Alex Southwell
Alex Southwell

The author of the following essay is a Professor at a top-ranking, metropolitan U.S. university. The names of both university and professor have been fictionalized to protect the professor from retaliation.

In the fall of 2005, I began working as a full-time faculty member in the General Studies program at Hudson University. I was promoted to full Professor last year. Thus, the tale I tell does not represent sour grapes. Rather, what follows is a jeremiad decrying the direction that academia has taken in order to underscore the threats posed to academic integrity and institutional legitimacy. Over twelve years, I have watched with increasing dismay and incredulity as academic integrity, fairness, and intellectual rigor have been eroded, with the implicit endorsement of administration and faculty alike. I have witnessed the de-professionalization of the professoriate—hiring policies based on tokenized identity politics and cronyism, the increasing intellectual and ideological conformity expected from faculty and students, and the subsequent curtailment of academic freedom.

Just to be clear, most of my faculty colleagues are well-educated, bright, and dedicated teachers. Some are also worthy scholars or creative authors. Yet, in addition to cronyism, the program’s hiring practices have been significantly compromised, especially as a result of the premium that the university has recently placed on “diversity.”

While having changed dramatically in recent years, General Studies at Hudson represents the legacy of a remedial program that began in the 1970s. A few of its current faculty members are remnants of that era. Although a new, competitive bachelor’s degree, and a relatively strong master’s degree were instituted over the past ten years, the effects of the legacy program, along with recent hiring trends, add up to a professoriate of mixed credentials and accomplishments. A full listing of both full- and part-time faculty includes some members whose highest degree is the B.A., along with several faculty members holding M.As., along with a rather large contingent of faculty holding the M.F.A. degree. Of those whose highest degree is a B.A., their fields of study were sometimes unrelated to the courses that they teach. In addition to depriving students of scholarly and pedagogic expertise, this sort of staffing sends a clear message to students: university accomplishments are relatively unimportant. Students might rightfully begin to ask why they should pursue advanced degrees or even undergraduate degrees when the university itself apparently deems such qualifications unnecessary for teaching.

This unevenness in faculty preparation would not represent a travesty if not for the glut of highly qualified Ph.Ds. entering the job market each year, many of whom remain on the market year after year. Hundreds of newly-minted, extremely impressive Ph.Ds. often go without full-time work, and some are unable to secure positions as adjuncts. Such difficulties in finding academic work are not primarily due to the “over-production” of Ph.Ds., as is commonly held. Rather, as the labor historian Trevor Griffey argues, the proximate cause is the de-professionalization of academic fields – the penchant for hiring contingent faculty without Ph.Ds., and an apparent administrative preference for under-qualified, inexperienced faculty. In the case of Hudson’s General Studies program, this kind of hiring proceeds apace, despite the large pool of excellent candidates, most of whom would be more than happy to teach at our university while enjoying its cosmopolitan environs. It is not as if these candidates do not apply for jobs in our program. They do. But I have seen their applications passed over for far less qualified, even egregiously unqualified candidates.

Some of the faculty members with less than impressive credentials hold positions of significant authority in terms of curriculum development. They serve as chairs of various sub-programs within academic units, and have influence over curricula, both within and beyond the program. One such faculty member, who holds an M.A. degree in a field that is not even taught in the program, serves on a committee responsible for making university-wide curriculum recommendations to the Provost.

My first collision with the rather anomalous and dismissive treatment of credentials and accomplishments in the program occurred during my second semester at Hudson and involved the election for writing faculty chair in the spring of 2006.

The candidates included me and another faculty member. She holds an M.A. degree, but no degree in literature or writing. After each of us was asked to write an introduction and mission statement, the voting began. The ballot box was controlled by a faculty aide, and the votes were cast manually. Upon counting the votes, the faculty aide announced that I had won by two votes. Upon hearing this, a proxy of the competitor, who had no official role in the process at all, confiscated the ballot box, and absconded with the ballots to his office. Subsequently, a “recount” was conducted (by whom, I never discovered, and after what happened to the ballots, I am obviously entitled to suspicions). I suddenly became the loser by the same margin that I had won.

In a more recent election for writing curricular chair, my competitor accused me in his mission statement of writing books and publishing essays. He treated these as blemishes or sins that somehow disqualified me for the position. “I haven’t written any textbooks. I don’t like textbooks. I don’t have a Ph.D. or scores of academic, scholarly publications to my name,” he wrote. These comments were made as part of a diatribe that diminished the importance of academic credentials and accomplishments, representing the Ph.D. and scholarly publications as pedantic, fuddy-duddy detriments rather than qualifications. As things go in my program, he won the election.

Among the writing faculty, most of whom hold M.F.A. degrees, a disdain for scholarship, and in particular for Ph.Ds. in English, is palpable. This attitude is likely owing to the fact that many of the faculty with M.F.As. are frustrated with having to teach first-year writing and other lower-level writing courses, apparently believing that they are soon-to-be-discovered literary authors who deserve sinecures within elite M.F.A. programs. They treat the writing courses in the program as if they were part of an ersatz M.F.A. program, approaching their students in introductory writing courses as if they were all seeking, or should be seeking, to become literary authors or columnists for Harper’s Magazine. This mode of instruction does a great disservice to students. I have taught hundreds of students in advanced-level courses; despite having taken two writing courses and a half a dozen writing-intensive surveys before enrolling in these courses, most students come to my upper-level classes with no idea about how to write a scholarly essay.

The hiring practices for writing instructors have often been based on cronyism. One particular member of the full-time writing faculty has exercised a talent for pulling strings for friends of important people with whom she seeks to ingratiate herself. As such, and having some mysterious power over top administrators, she manages to secure positions for new adjuncts whose qualifications are quite imperceptible. In one case, the beneficiary of the cronyism had never taught a college class, held only a B.A. in sociology, and had published nothing other than a few chatty, web-based editorials. Yet she was hired to teach university writing courses.

After successfully securing part-time employment for this academic labor scab, the same full-time faculty member attempted to have the equivalent of a leftist Dear Abby hired as a full-time professor in writing and journalism. In this effort, she was foiled by the proponents of another kind of favoritism: identity politics tokenism.

I was appointed by the dean of General Studies to serve as the chair for a writing hiring committee, a committee charged with hiring one full-time writing professor, who not only could teach first-year writing classes but also offerings in journalism. The committee of three met late in the fall semester to discuss the first group of candidates, before undertaking the second set of Skype interviews. I mentioned that I had received an email from one of the candidates and shared it with the committee members. After reading the email aloud, I argued that the missive effectively disqualified the candidate. The writing was riddled with awkward expression, malapropisms, misplaced punctuation, and other conceptual and formal problems. Rarely had a first-year student issued an email to me that evidenced more infelicitous prose. I asked my fellow committee members how we could possibly hire someone to teach writing who had written such an email, despite the fact that it represented only a piece of occasional writing. The candidate could not write. I also pointed back to her application letter, which was similarly awkward and error-laden. My committee colleagues argued that “we do not teach grammar” in our writing classes. Sure, I thought. And a surgeon doesn’t take vital signs or draw blood. That doesn’t mean that the surgeon wouldn’t be able to do so when required.

In the Skype interview following this discussion, a fellow committee member proceeded to attack the next job candidate, a candidate whom I respected. In fact, before the interview, this colleague, obviously enraged by my criticisms of her favorite, announced that she would ruthlessly attack the next candidate. She did exactly that, asking increasingly obtuse questions, while adopting a belligerent tone and aggressive posture from the start. That candidate, incidentally, had done fascinating scholarship on the history of U.S. journalism from the late 19th through the first half of the 20th Century. He had earned his Ph.D. from a top-ten English department, had since accrued considerable teaching experience in relevant subjects, and presented a record of noteworthy publications, including academic scholarship and journalism. He interviewed extremely well, except when he was harangued and badgered by the hostile interviewer. He should have been a finalist for the job. But he had a fatal flaw: he was a white, straight male.

After the interview, I chided my colleague uncompromisingly, although without a hint of bias. I believed, and still do, that her behavior during that interview was utterly unprofessional and prejudicial, and I told her so. Next, I was on the receiving end of her verbal barrage. Not only did she call me some choice expletives but also rose from her chair and posed as if to charge me physically, all the while flailing her limbs and yelling. I left the room and proceeded to the dean’s office. I told the dean what had just occurred. He advised me to calm down and let it rest until the following week.

What happened next was telling. I was unwittingly enmeshed in an identity politics imbroglio. The woman who had verbally assaulted me was a black female and the candidate whom she championed was also a black female. I was informed by the dean that pursuing a grievance, or even remaining on the committee, was now “complicated.” Shortly after the dean recommended that I step down from the committee, I realized I was in a corner and stepped down, going from chair to non-member.

The committee went on to hire the woman in question. Since assuming her position, the new hire posted an official faculty profile linked from Hudson’s General Studies program page. Her faculty profile page betrays the same awkward prose, poor incorporation of quotes, and other problems of expression typical of first-year student writers, but usually not professors. The profile also includes a glaring grammatical error. I strongly believe that her official evaluations are likely as bad as her RateMyProfessors.com reviews.

To be perfectly clear, I am not arguing against the diversification of the faculty and student populations within Hudson’s General Studies program and beyond. Rather, I am suggesting that the diversity initiatives recently introduced by the university and our program have been hastily and thoughtlessly administered and mistakenly construed, to the detriment of academic integrity and real equity. Qualified academics can be found among all population groups. The university must ensure that those selected are qualified, first and foremost, not by their identities per se, but by what they know and are able to do and teach. It is sheer cynicism to suppose that qualified candidates cannot be found among minority groups. Blatant tokenism in hiring and promotion jeopardizes the integrity of higher education and also undermines the objectives that diversity initiatives aim to promote.

Further, when markers of race, gender, gender fluidity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and other factors are deemed the only criteria for diversity, students are cheated, as are those chosen to meet diversity measures on the basis of identity alone. Nothing is more essentialist or constraining than diversity understood strictly in terms of identity. Such a notion of diversity reduces “diverse” people to the status of token bearers of identity markers, relegating them to an impenetrable and largely inescapable identity chrysalis, and implicitly eliding their individuality. Meanwhile, there is no necessary connection between identity and ideas, identity and talents, identity and aspirations, or identity and beliefs.

Likewise, if we wish to foster real diversity in higher education, we must consider not only diversity of identity but also diversity of thought and perspective. This is the kind of diversity that we are supposed to recognize and foster in the first place.

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Alex Southwell

The author of this essay is a Professor at a top-ranking, metropolitan U.S. university. Their name has been changed to protect them from retaliation.