Sunday, October 22, 2006

Academe Follies: Three Examples

By Richard Vedder

I have just completed a fascinating, if somewhat brutal, week of travel and had several experiences that reminded me how tenure and the lack of transparency in the academy leads to a lot of silliness, irresponsibility, and, arguably a waste of resources.

At my home university briefly between my sojourns, I learned that the faculty still refuse to condemn a plagiarism scandal that has tarnished the institution's reputation, finding any excuse not to do so. It reminds me that faculty tend to protect their own, to abuse tenure sometimes to thwart holding people responsible for their actions. And it shows that increasingly in this age of moral relativism, academic people do not know right from wrong.

At a delightfully organized symposium on Wal-Mart at the University of Connecticut Law School, on average I was more impressed with the students than the faculty. I heard about eight presentations (one by me), and would conclude that perhaps five of them were done using traditional standards of academic scholarship, making reasonably objective presentations appealing to evidence. The other three were largely ideologically based diatribes with little or no factual basis. One law school professor argued, with a straight face, that Wal-Mart was endangering women's health. She claims women do not walk as much as in the pre-Wal-Mart era, and this lack of exercise is health threatening. Of course, she had not a single shred of evidence to support this assertion. My hunch, and it is only a hunch,is that women walk MORE doing their shopping in the post-Wal-Mart era. In any case, female life expectancy seems to be rising nicely in recent years. Another assertion was that Wal-Mart was at least partially responsible for global warming. Again, not a bit of evidence. Only in the academy can persons supposedly dedicated to spreading truths make such factually dubious statements and continue to work and receive salary increases.

While on planes, when not grading exams I was reading a book by a young historian. Since I am reviewing the book, have not finished reading it, and believe that I should at least deliver the review to the publisher before putting it on the Internet (an old-fashioned view), I will not provide a lot of details, except that the author makes a tortured case that globalization is responsible for America's distinctive behavior as a nation -- American exceptionalism. In a world where we have scads of historians retreading old ground (in this case, the U.S. between 1865 and 1914), this reminds me how scholars seeking tenure and success have to engage in product differentiation --putting a new slant on things -- to get ahead. Globalization is trendy, popular, de rigueur, so why not write a book arguing that globalization has defined America's distinct character? At least the author is using traditional methods of scholarship (e.g, lots of citations and footnotes) to make a point, but the evidence is pretty weak and selectively used to bolster his case. We need historians, and constantly need to retell the past to new generations. But how many new books on the late 19th century America should society subsidize? My suspicion is that we over-research many areas on any rational cost-benefit calculus. Maybe this is another argument to increase teaching loads to help moderate rising college costs.

1 comment:

superhiker said...

This would be more persuasive if Prof. Vedder had given up tenure before he became emeritus, before he presumably was pensioned off; if he had declined his "distinguished professorship"; if he had disdained scholarship when HE were a beginning professor, gone off to a small college with little research and high teaching responsibilities.