Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, and most recently of The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For. Riley is also the co-editor of Acculturated, a book of essays on pop culture and virtue published this spring by the Templeton Press. Ms. Riley’s writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She is a contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog.

Below, I pose questions to Ms. Riley about her most recent book, The Faculty Lounges.

KCH: Before our interview, I reviewed some of the early responses to your book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that academics (particularly those with tenure) are not pleased with your thesis. However, the tone of some of the comments was extraordinary: some questioned your motives, others challenged your intellectual capacity, and one claimed that you write “soft-core ideological porn.” Wouldn’t it be less dangerous for you to write critically about the military-industrial complex or, say, organized crime? 

Despite being quite familiar with the world of higher education, I have to say I was astounded by the level of vitriol that I encountered in when I wrote op eds and blog posts on the subject of tenure or higher education reform in general. I understand that people have an instinct for self-preservation, but I think that needs to be mixed with some common sense. Public confidence in higher education is at an all-time low and this might be a good time for the professoriate to listen to some of its critics. There are plenty of pundits and politicians out there who think higher education is a complete waste of time. I am not among them. I think a good liberal arts education can completely transform a person’s life. And I think that strong vocational education programs also have an important place in our country. In my book I have tried to provide some constructive criticism for administrators and faculty and a kind of roadmap of the higher education sector for parents and students.

KCH: It seems logical that the tenure system would support much-needed innovation by allowing faculty to operate free of restraints. Yet you see tenure creating a highly cautious approach to change on campuses. Why?

I think there are several reasons but let me highlight two. The first is I think the amount of time that faculty members spend trying to get tenure. If you think about the years that it takes to get a PhD–a median of 11 for an English degree, by the way!–and then the years spent working as an adjunct or assistant professor trying to get tenure, you could be easily talking 15  or 20 years. During that time we train people to keep their mouths shut and their heads down if they want to make it to the next level. What is the likelihood that after all that time, someone is going to suddenly start speaking up at the age of, say, 40? Job security becomes the be-all end-all of the profession.

The other reason that tenure does not seem to encourage much in the way of dissent is the system of “departmental majoritarianism,” that is, the system by which members of a particular department seem to keep voting in clones of themselves. There is no outside input in the process. Most administrators are rubber-stamping faculty decisions. And so there is a kind of insularity to it all. Since there is so little movement in the academic world–junior faculty might as well be waiting for someone to get hit by a bus in order to get a job–the members of a department are basically stuck with one another for life. They don’t want to alienate the people they will have to work with for decades to come and they don’t get many new ideas because there is so little new blood coming in.

KCH: You quote the work of sociologists David Reisman and Christopher Jencks from their 1968 book, The Academic Revolution: Administrators . . . “are today more concerned with keeping their faculty happy than with placating any other single groups. They are also, in our experience, far more responsive to students and more concerned with the inadequacies and tragedies of student life than the majority of faculty.” Despite being on the “front lines”, as you put it, administrators don’t often have the authority to make substantial changes at their institutions if the required changes directly involve faculty. How did we find ourselves in this situation and how do you suggest we get out of it? 

NSR: We have in place a system of faculty governance whereby professors have essentially gained a stranglehold on power at the university. The system of faculty governance is an important feature of the modern university. Starting in the late part of the 19th century, when the German model of the research university made its first appearance on our shores, the role of the professoriate changed from one of imparting knowledge to students, to one in which the primary focus was on research. This made sense for much of the biological and physical sciences, where scientific advances were happening at a rapid clip, too rapid perhaps for the average citizen to understand. But the research mandate was extended to the social sciences and the humanities. And professors of all stripes were increasingly understood to be society’s experts, its public intellectuals. And since what they were writing was considered above the heads of ordinary folks, they needed to govern themselves. Their work could only be judged by their peers.

This explains how faculty have gained the privilege of deciding which of their colleagues deserve tenure or promotion and which deserve to be fired. But faculty are in charge of so much else at universities these days. They vote on university investments, decide whether students are guilty or innocent of sexual assault, as well as control more mundane affairs like when classes should be taught and which classes should be taught.

Today, faculty control of universities has created any number of problems. While the state legislators and parents and students and taxpayers are having discussions about reforming higher education–fixing the cost structure, changing the curriculum, adding more distance learning, making professors teach more, etc.–they are not likely to have a significant effect any time soon. One reason is that every battle in higher education is a battle of attrition. The faculty will outlast any president, any administrator, any parent, any student, any trustee, etc. And so they will always win. When people ask me why I have focused on the issue of tenure, it is because I believe that changing this system is the key to making any other reforms work.

KCH: You identify a number of problems in higher ed that, in your view, are exacerbated by tenure. If the tenure system is eventually dismantled, who and what will most likely be responsible for its demise?  

NSR: If tenure is dismantled intentionally, it will be done first by state legislatures. With budgets tighter and more scrutiny of colleges and universities, these politicians are probably in the best position to do some kind of reform. They can vote to stop offering tenure to new faculty members and instead replace the institution with multi-year renewable contracts. Private universities may eventually follow the lead of public ones, but they won’t experience much in the way of direct pressure on this issue any time soon.

But as everyone knows, tenure and tenure-track positions are becoming a smaller percentage of the academic job market. What may happen, unfortunately, is that this diminishment will continue in a haphazard way and that universities will simply fill up with adjunct faculty. I see this as a problem. Adjuncts are often not treated well by their institutions, making low salaries, finding out whether they will be teaching only a few weeks before the semester begins (if that). They are forced to hold jobs on different campuses and often don’t have much contact with students. A higher percentage of adjuncts on campus correlates with lower graduation rates. I hope that we can stop this inevitable slide toward adjunctification by thinking seriously about faculty roles and contracts now and moving forward with a plan that is in the best interests of students.

3 thoughts on “Faculty Lounges: Naomi Schaefer Riley (Author Interview Series)

  1. Just finishing reading this book. Schaefer-Riley makes a compelling argument for dismanteling tenure as we know it. The scary part is that nature abhors a vacuum. Unless universities strategically define a new system, unions will likely fill the void (where that has not already occurred). Another question that needs to be addressed in the humanities and social sciences revolves around how much research really needs to be conducted. When looking at the quantity of research universities in this country, do we really need research conducted by each institution? For example, could the University of California system assign research in diferent disciplines to different campuses and avoid the redundancy?

    The most difficult part of the discussion is that students are not considered relevant in the decision making process.


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