Unprofitable Professors Getting Fired

Unprofitable Professors Getting Fired

by James Joyner

Being a public intellectual doesn’t pay.

The Nation, “Columbia University Fired Two
Eminent Public Intellectuals. Here’s Why It Matters
.”

Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, longtime professors at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, learned that they were losing their jobs because they hadn’t brought in enough grant money. Both, ironically, are models for the sort of publicly engaged intellectual Kristof wants to see more of. Vance has done pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights. “She has been a mentor and a leading influence on generations of scholars as well as activists and practitioners,” says Rebecca Schleifer, the former advocacy director for the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. Hopper, who divides his time between Columbia and the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness. Last year, American Anthropologist ran a piece highlighting his work beyond academia, noting that Hopper “has long urged anthropologists to take part in public debates, to translate ethnographic findings into policy proposals.”

His termination, along with Vance’s, suggests that scholars have good reason not to take this advice. Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent—and professors say that it’s become a hard rule, with less room for the cross-subsidization of those who devote themselves to teaching or whose research isn’t attractive to outside funders. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.

The result is an increasing focus on the bottom line over a broad engagement with social issues. “One of the costs of this push for federal funding is going to be a depoliticization of the scholarship at Mailman,” says a professor there who asked to remain anonymous for fear of administration reprisals. “You can’t do great public health without engaging with politics.”

Michelle Goldberg, the author of the cited piece, concludes that this is “a demonstration of what happens to scholarship and intellectual endeavor when financial concerns trump all else. When money is the most salient measurement in cultural life, we all end up impoverished.” But it’s more complicated than that.

At one level, this simply isn’t surprising. The grant-funded model has been on the rise for decades in some fields. In addition to being a chief way for universities to pay for professorial salaries, research assistants, laboratory facilities and the like but it contributes mightily to institutional prestige.

We have here two great scholars whose greatest impact on their field came a quarter century or more ago and who have of late mostly been teachers and advocates. From the standpoint of society at large or the parents of prospective students, that’s a welcome thing. And, while it’s less true than it was even twenty years ago, it’s still a viable model at most colleges and universities, whether public or private, in America.

At places like Columbia, one of the truly elite schools, not so much. Undergraduate teaching is an afterthought. Producing top flight graduate students is of some value but, frankly, it mostly redounds to the institution that hires them as professors and researchers. No, prestige is mostly measured by the productivity of their faculty in terms of prizes won, grants received, and books and articles published.

Given how few professorships exist at these schools, I’ve got little heartburn with them demanding that their faculty remain productive into their fifties and sixties. I’m sure Vance and Hopper can easily find an endowed chair somewhere at a more teaching- or public service-oriented institution if they’re tired of the grind.

What I fear isn’t that the ability to raise money is more valued than teaching; one only needs to compare the salaries of professors and fundraisers to know that. Relatedly, while lamentable, I’m not even that concerned that the pressures are for professors to spend most of their time chasing grants and doing research rather than teaching. There are plenty of schools  for students who want a more personal touch; indeed, they vastly outnumber the elite research universities.

No, I worry about the impact on intellectual freedom. While it’s long been true that it’s easier to publish articles related to current fads and trends than those which truly advance the field, at least the decision of what research got done and published was being made by scholars. But, as the pressure to get grant money comes to dominate the process, it means that those who have the money will increasingly decide what research gets done. That’s probably not a big deal when we’re talking about institutions like the NIH and some of the older charitable foundations. But major corporations and ideologically-driven foundations will surely swoop in to fill the demand for grant money. What then?

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