Daniel W. Drezner

Your bogus academic trend of the week

Your bogus academic trend of the week

Among the most popular New York Times articles of the past 24 hours (not to mention my Twitter feed) is this Christopher Shea essay about tenure.  Shea reviews two recent books by university professors who are so bold as to suggest abolishing the institution. 

After reading the essay, however, I must conclude that the reason it’s so popular is that the only people who read the New York Times on Labor Day weekend are academics and their relatives. 

Here’s the part where Shea lost me — the opening paragraphs:    

In tough economic times, it’s easy to gin up anger against elites. The bashing of bankers is already so robust that the economist William Easterly has compared it, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, to genocidal racism. But in recent months, a more unlikely privileged group has found itself in the cross hairs: tenured ­professors.

At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?

That sketch — relayed on numerous blogs and op-ed pages — is exaggerated, but no one who has observed the academic world could call it entirely false. And it’s a vision that has caught on with an American public worried about how to foot the bill for it all (emphasis added)

OK, here’s my question:  where is the evidence for this public ire?  Compared to bankers, politicians, or American Muslims, where exactly is the outpouring of outrage against tenured radicals? 

I’ll tell you where the evidence ain’t — Shea’s essay.  His review of the two books is perfectly adequate, but there is zero evidence beyond that stray reference to "numerous blogs and op-ed pages."  One of those op-eds, of course, was by one of the book authors he reviews, however, so I don’t think it could count.

As a tenured professor who’s recent scholarly output could be accused of trending towards the whimsical, I should be a Big Target for this kind of attack.  I ain’t seeing it, however.  Maybe this is because I’m ridiculously out of touch, but compared with the other groups listed above, academics have not faced much public scorn. 

Indeed, if anything, the past few years should have been an "easy test" for hostility towards tenure, as hard times should have triggered a massive outpouring of support for this kind of higher education reform.  Again, however, I see no evidence for such a groundswell. 

I’m going to file this under Jack Shafer’s "Bogus Trends" watch and enjoy the rest of my Labor Day.  I suggest you do the same.