By Richard Vedder
I read some good stuff provided me by two fine but rival media outlets, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I will write about the news from Inside Higher Ed today, and the Chronicle soon.
The Modern Language Association has been in the news a lot lately, because it has proposed a new way to evaluate probationary faculty for tenure. Although there is a lot to the MLA proposal, a key dimension is to define "research" more generally (and generously) than in the past. At present, in the humanities, the publication of a monograph is considered necessary for tenure in a majority of serious four year institutions. This means the world is being flooded with lots of monographs that hardly anyone reads. The MLA proposal, by itself, is probably a good one, but does it go far enough? Maybe more radical thinking and action is needed.
First, of course, is the issue of tenure itself. Does it really protect academic freedom? Is it a "perk" that attracts many able persons to the professoriate, and allows universities to pay lower base salaries in exchange for job security? Or is it truly costly in terms of its effect in stifling innovation and resource reallocations? The decline in its importance in the real world (an increasing portion of teaching is done by nontenure persons) makes an examination of the entire institution legitimate, although MLA would almost certainly not agree. My surmise is, in the absence of tenure, the relative decline in the humanities observed in American universities would have been even faster. Whether that is good or bad is a highly debatable proposition.
Second, what about the research? Universities have a legitimate, even important, role to play in strengthening Western civilization and improve the quality of our lives by research that finds new ways to do things, methods to prolong lives, etc. Yet is it necessary that every French professor do a lot of research on obscure writers or avant-garde poets that no one reads? Has our research fetish gone too far? Does the research done by humanities professors materially improve their teaching? Increase our understanding of the world as it is or should be? Are the costs (lower teaching loads and therefore higher tuition fees) greater than the benefits? Since the costs are felt by parents and taxpayers, and the benefits are felt by professors (who prefer research to teaching), there is a certain redistributive dimension to this question. Third party payments have worked to give the academics the upper hand in this debate, and tilted things more in favor of research, in my judgment (read my book Going Broke By Degree for evidence). Has that been wise? How many articles do we need on Moliere, and how much do we need to talk incessantly in incomprehensible academic-speak about race, class, gender, rectal fascinations (a paper at the last MLA meeting,) etc.? Perhaps diminishing returns have set in to humanities scholarship.
That said, Stanford's decision to give $5,000 in research money to all of its humanities scholars with tenure or on tenure track is a curious one. I attribute it to be a form of disciplinary affirmative action, to assuage humanities faculty resentfully salivating over all the juicy government grants going to the scientists and even to a lesser degree the so-called social scientists. Will this program increase humanities research? Should it? If it does not, is it not merely a form of economic rent, transferring funds from alumni, donors, and tuition payers to one group of faculty?