Higher Education


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The American University

Higher education in America and Europe is labeled “academic.” This Greek word is derived from the residence of the ancient philosopher (lover of wisdom) Plato (427-347 BCE) who lived in a house once belonging to a citizen named Akademos. Now the words academy and academic refer to so-called higher education.

Until recently, American colleges and universities enrolled about 16 million students. These students were called college students, as most institutions of higher learning conferred so called bachelor’s degrees to those who had completed four years of study. Universities were, until last year, those institutions which included a school of law, a school of medicine, graduate schools which confer doctoral degrees, and such schools as architecture, engineering, etc.  Now, the distinction between colleges and universities has been abolished, as any four year college can call itself a university even if there is no graduate school of any kind.

Outsiders who are not members of a college faculty are told by our media that these institutions function like business and industrial establishments in that there is a hierarchy of bosses including a college president, vice presidents, deans, associate deans, department chairs, and, on the bottom, professors, who appear to be the coolies of the institution.

The facts are quite different. The administrators of universities and colleges are in reality the failures within the profession. Most college presidents are politicians who seek power or at least the appearance of power and a large paycheck. Yet scholarly research and publication is the very heart of the academic profession, and therefore administrators who deal with such lofty issues as parking spaces and leaking roofs are hardly equals to those who produce books and scholarly journals. Who was president of the University of Pittsburgh when Professor Jonas Salk developed the vaccine for poliomyelitis?

College and university presidents are generally politicians who know how to influence the board of trustees at any college to make them president. College presidents are expected to raise money from alumni and others. Presidents of colleges and universities do not appoint the faculty. Faculty are appointed by professors who are already members of a department. Anyone seeking an academic appointment must submit his credentials to the department in which he seeks to function. The members of the department review the credentials and usually also require an interview. The department members then vote which applicant they wish to appoint. The candidate’s name is then sent to the dean, the vice president, and the president, all of whom have no choice but to appoint the candidate selected by the members of the department. Only if one of these administrators has information not known to the department can an administrator hold up a faculty appointment.

It is also important that administrators hold their positions only at the pleasure of the faculty. Indeed, the president is appointed by the trustees. However, if the faculty finds the president inadequate for any reason, the trustees must let him go. The deans who head various disciplines in a university are appointed by a majority vote of the faculty. The dean is usually elected for three years and is then evaluated by the faculty at the end of that time if he seeks to keep his job. A dean who loses the vote of the faculty must leave. The faculty appoints its own members and the dean. Even the president cannot long remain in his position if his performance does not please the faculty.

Department chairs are elected by members of the department. The chair may serve three years and then needs to be reelected. The chair rotates among the department members, although many departments re-elect  the chair for years because nobody else wants the job. The problem faced by the chair is that he cannot find time to publish books and journal articles and therefore may never become a professor. Of course, there are those who want to be chair because they cannot write, cannot teach, cannot research or conduct experiments, and therefore cannot do anything worthwhile except the routine measures required of a chair. Chairmen have no authority and serve at the pleasure of the department members.

What is true of new hirings is also true of promotion. New faculty members are usually appointed for one to two years.  However, an assistant professor may remain in that rank only seven years. At the end of six years the department members review the performance of the assistant professor. This means that the candidate for promotion to associate professor must have published to be considered for associate professor, which includes life tenure. Assistant professors whose publication record is poor are not promoted and are let go at the end of seven years. Those who are promoted are given a substantial increase in pay and may “rest on their laurels” for a lifetime. That leaves the rank of professor as the most important attainment of any academic. The rank of professor is again in the hands of the department members, who vote whether an associate professor should be promoted to more pay and more prestige. Professors should have published one or more books and a large number of journal articles or some other combination. Some professors write incessantly and produce thirty books and numerous journal articles. Some are truly writing machines while others do nothing because they have tenure and need not work anymore. Indeed, some professors are ‘pensioners of the state.” These associate and “full” professors take advantage of tenure but cannot be removed.  It is therefore understandable that there are many who want to enter  the academic profession, as they seek a lifetime appointment without needing to work. Yet, tenure cannot be abolished, because those who write a lot would lose their jobs as soon as some politician did not like what a professor wrote.

Because research and publication are featured as the most important means of advancing to tenure and eventually to the rank of professor, there are in the academic profession numerous participants who dislike teaching and who are absolutely terrified at the prospect of having to write journal articles and books. These “hangers on” cannot think of a topic they would  like to study and write about. Even those who do make a weak effort to write something cannot tolerate rejection by publishers and do not try again. Facing the possibility of losing their job after seven years, these non-scholars seek refuge in becoming an administrator. This is also true of some who have achieve tenure but hate to make the effort of writing one or more books in order to attain promotion to the  professor rank. Desperate to be an administrator, these sycophants (fig showers)  run to every meeting at which established administrators are present. They beg for an administrative job of any kind, thereby relieving themselves of the need to write while simultaneously telling their family and friends that they have been “promoted” to assistant provost or associate dean or assistant to the president, etc.  Now the truth is that these administrators do not need any college education, let alone a doctorate, to sit in meetings all day discussing such weighty issues  as parking, fixing a leaking roof in a building, hearing complaints about “unfair exams,” interfering with the campus police,  and allocating some money to the library for new books. Any high school graduate can sit in meetings all day and do the non-work of these administrators. Relieved of the need to write and publish, administrators develop what the Germans call “Grossenwahn,” or “delusions of grandeur.” This need to exhibit oneself is particularly visible among college and university presidents who surround themselves with speechwriters, numerous secretaries, assistants or vice presidents, and all others whose political acumen drives them on and on. These politicians earn a lot of money which could be spent on allowing poor students to gain scholarships which pay their tuition. But “Grossenwahn” comes first, as can easily be seen by observing our “public servants” or elected officials whose sole achievements are that they know how to attribute to themselves the achievements of others.

Many years ago, Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, observed that Harvard University produces mostly arrogant fools who can’t do much more than brag. Undoubtedly there are professors at Harvard who have contributed much to science and the humanities. In some prestigious universities we also find numerous self-aggrandizers, such as the former president of Harvard who had his secretary tell a visitor that “the president is in Washington so speak to Mr. Roosevelt.”

All of these menageries cost money. Most of the cost goes to salaries, which are uneven, depending on the location of the college under consideration. Therefore California appears to pay more than any other state to its faculty. There the average professor earns $124,420 and in New York the average professor earns $112,960. In Texas, the average professor earns $70,270, in New Jersey, $93,460, and in Pennsylvania $93,490. The pay of California faculty is the least because the cost of living in California is far above that of all other states except New York or, more specifically, New York City. Someone who earns upward of $112,000 in Buffalo is far better off than someone who earns that in Manhattan.

Currently, in 2022, there are very few academic job openings available to new Ph.D.’s. This is in part due to the decline in the number of students, but also because the members of the public have recognized that their daughters or sons are better off learning computer science or plumbing instead of hearing a Phidiot (an idiot with a Ph.D.) rant about Chinese hieroglyphics or his latest divorce.

Shalom u'vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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