Why would anyone want to be a professor?

Why would anyone want to be a professor?
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When I entered the teaching profession at the University of Virginia in the mid-1960s, I knew my future involved a trade-off: freedom of thought and action, with long-term retirement benefits on the plus side; lower earnings potential and a late entry into the job market on the negative side. My fellow Ph.D.s engaged in years of advanced study, during which we sacrificed the higher salaries enjoyed by our peers who went directly into the manufacturing economy in their early 20s. 

Most of us balanced our studies with assignments as graduate assistants to senior professors in large lecture classes for undergraduates or, in disciplines such as modern languages, as instructors in first- and second-year courses. Our cheap labor defrayed a significant proportion of the cost of graduate courses and provided necessary training for our future profession. We also learned the rudiments of the shared culture of the university. When we took our Ph.D. degree and went out into the world, we were largely debt-free. 

We knew that our salary levels would remain modest, compared to our peers’ in more competitive branches of the economy. We understood that the societal benefits that would accrue from our teaching were long-term and could be measured only in decades, and that any measurements were approximate at best. Our advancement through the ranks (assistant, then associate, and finally full professor) would result from assessment by more senior professional peers. Deans and college or university presidents were all former professors who shared a common culture and made decisions accordingly. 

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Then, faculties largely were run by committees of professors in a collegial hierarchy, rather like the monastic establishments from which secular colleges and universities had emerged. The institution of tenure was instituted to ensure that solid performers (in teaching, research and service) would remain available to make sound decisions and guarantee the institution’s future well-being. The rules and conventions were simple and generally understood. Discipline — rare, and usually anodyne — was meted out by the department chair or the dean. 

Because the institution was so different in type from the rest of the working world, it came to be thought of as an “ivory tower” set apart from ordinary labor. As long as society at-large appreciated and enjoyed the long-term benefits that publicly funded colleges and universities provided, everyone benefited from the trade-off. In 1969, three years after I entered the field, about 80 percent of contracts offered the possibility of tenure after a long probationary period.

In the latter half of the 20th century, however, professors came to enjoy less respect than our peers in other countries. The reason was both crassly financial and narrowly political. To the extent that U.S. professors didn’t produce anything measurable, we came to be characterized as unproductive, even parasitic. In Europe and the United Kingdom, by contrast, knowledge was recognized for its social value and was pursued, acquired and transmitted for its own sake. 

To a considerable extent, our colleagues abroad still are considered to be valuable members of society and are accorded significant respect. In the past quarter-century, the decline in perceived social value of the professorial class in the U.S. has both undermined the profession and permitted a rapid and massive transformation of our institutions of higher learning. In an earlier opinion piece, I described the transformation from meritocracy to mediocracy, in terms of the political correctness that serves as its public face. 

It is time to focus on the economic underpinnings of the well-orchestrated and decades-long attacks against higher education — and especially against public universities. Isaac Kamola, assistant professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., argues in the journal of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) that a network of billionaires has funded a “strategy [for] unleashing a maelstrom of viral outrage targeted at specific faculty (often faculty of color).” Kamola contends that these attacks are part of a well-organized political strategy “designed to influence the ideas that circulate on college campuses.” 

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If the ideologues behind this strategy can undermine confidence in professors, they can weaken the foundations of public education. Too many college and university administrations have shown themselves to be gutless in the face of well-funded campaigns against freedom of expression. By focusing on the targets, using political correctness as their excuse, university administrators effectively do the bidding of the billionaires, whose apparent goal is to defund public education

These are the perilous conditions that newly-minted Ph.D.s face as they embark on careers that are ever more problematical. What is the likelihood that they will enjoy the benefits that drew my generation to college and university teaching? The odds of a tenured position now are about one in four. According to the AAUP, in 2016 contingent teaching contracts constituted 73 percent across all categories of post-secondary education. The higher up the food chain one looks, the better the chances of a professional career, but the competition is fierce and the odds against success as my generation understood it are daunting.

The financial situation of the beginning professor aggravates the situation. With an average student loan debt of $100,000 to $200,000 in 2014, even those who eventually make it to a tenured position will find it difficult to buy a house. Those who work two or three contingent positions in order to pay the rent are condemned to a life of relative poverty in which none of the benefits that drew my generation to teaching any longer remain.

It is clear that the billionaires have won their long game. Confidence in public education has been undermined, largely through the repressive tactics of so-called political correctness; state governments have seen the opportunity to drastically curtail funding for colleges and universities dependent on public support. College or university teaching no longer is a profession; it now is rarely a reliable career. 

Under these circumstances, why would anybody willingly defer entry into the job market for five to 10 years, and take on a massive debt burden, knowing that middle-class status could remain unattainable?

Albert James Arnold taught French and comparative literature at the University of Virginia from 1966 to 2007. Trinity College of Cambridge University made him a visiting fellow in 2007. In 2015, he was made a Knight of the Order of Academic Palms by the French government.