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The Professors: A Survey of a Survey

Last spring more than 9,000 faculty members in American colleges and universities received a questionnaire called “The 1977 Survey of the American Professoriate.” This questionnaire, twenty pages long, consisted of 128 multiple choice questions. It had an impressive deep red cover stating that it was “directed” by Everett C. Ladd, Jr., of the University of Connecticut and Seymour Martin Lipset of Stanford. An accompanying letter from Lipset and Ladd informed those who received it that:

The primary reason for this faculty survey is to collect information useful to the formation of sound education policy. If intelligent responses are to be forthcoming, they must be based on an adequate reading of faculty preferences and the maximum input of faculty understanding. It is important that policy makers (inside and outside academe) know the views of the more than a half million men and women who, through their research activities and their training of over eight million college students each year, play so large a role in American educational and scientific life.

When I received the questionnaire, I read it and threw it away—a common reaction apparently, since about half of the questionnaires were not returned to the surveyors. After thinking further about the questionnaire, however, I became increasingly concerned because of its possible effects on American education, and decided to analyze it.

I

The questionnaire consists of ten sections including such matters as “Academic Standards,” “National Affairs,” and “The Norms of Science and Scholarship.” The covering letter did not say who sponsored the survey. I have since learned that it was paid for primarily by the Carnegie Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. More important, the findings have been getting much attention, and are being publicized as accurately representing the views of American professors. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reaches some 67,000 academics and administrators, has recently been publishing a series of articles summarizing the results of the survey. I have seen articles on it in such different publications as Newsweek, The Manchester Guardian Weekly (“Why Campus Morale Has Plunged”), and Stanford University’s Campus Report (“Survey Shows Academics Support Private Business, Fear Big Government Growth”). Mr. Ladd himself stated in February 1978 that “policy makers take our material seriously,” and he pointed out that within the last two months he had received inquiries about his survey’s data from such groups as the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Commission on Higher Education.1

I regard the questionnaire as defective in at least two ways: first, it prejudices many questions to the point where respondents may reasonably object to dealing with the issues on the surveyors’ terms. Second, it ignores what might be called the Heisenberg Principle of the social sciences: that some things cannot be measured without being altered by the measuring process.

I’m not claiming of course that Lipset and Ladd have deliberately prejudiced the questions, only that many of their questions reflect ways of perceiving the issues that are repugnant to others. Lipset admits that he has tried to “simplify complex issues into a variety of simple items to which everyone responds.” But the prejudice I have in mind goes well beyond such simplification. The surveyors do not allow for people whose thinking is quite different from their own or from that of the group they used to “pretest” the questionnaire before it was sent out.

For reasons of space, I will limit myself to five questions from three categories: “Current Concerns,” “National Affairs,” and “The Norms of Science and Scholarship.”

Question 3. The statements below relate to teaching and student performance. Does each correctly reflect your personal judgment?

(1) Definitely yes

(2) Only partly

(3) Definitely no

a. The students with whom I have close contact are seriously underprepared in basic skills—such as those required for written and oral communication.

This statement does not connect with reality as I know it. In 1977, for example, there were about 900 students taking the first three terms of calculus at Yale. Of these, about 150 freshmen had trouble with ninth-grade algebra. On the other hand, about 180 freshmen were qualified to take third term (or second year) calculus, and they made up about two-thirds of the class. (The others were sophomores.) The simultaneous existence of a large group of badly prepared students with an even larger group of exceptionally well prepared students is a fascinating phenomenon, which cannot be taken into account by answering Question 3a as directed.

I have taught for twenty-seven years. During this period there has been a substantial improvement in the mathematical skills of a large group of students. Another large group still performs disastrously in, say, ninth-grade algebra. But twenty-seven years ago the performance of a comparable group would have been even worse. The emergence of a large number of well-prepared advanced students was the result of reforms dating back to the late 1950s. The same movement which gave rise to the “new math”—which I have partly criticized—also led to some improvements in the high school curriculum. While it would be useful to ask college professors their views on current high school training, and to gather concrete suggestions on how to improve it, this cannot be achieved by Question 3a, which lacks the necessary precision and is intellectually at the level of a TV panel. It can only mislead people, or be improperly interpreted, thus preventing the “formation of sound education policy.”

Question 3b. “Grade inflation” is a serious academic standards problem at my institution.

The question does not deserve serious consideration because an answer can be interpreted in several ways. Suppose that a person chooses answer (3), “Definitely no.” The respondent could mean that grade inflation is not a problem per se; that it is a problem per se, but not at the respondent’s institution; that it is a problem at the institution, but not a serious problem; that it is a serious problem but not at the respondent’s institution, etc.

Question 3c. American higher education should expand the core curriculum, to increase the number of basic courses required of all undergraduates.

This question poses a generalization so sweeping that it does not make sense. Universities differ; their functions differ; there are plausible reasons for having many choices among them. Who would want to answer a question like this one in an absolute way? What do the questioners mean by “American higher education”? The Harvard-Princeton-Yale circuit? The University of Michigan? Chicago? Ohio State? Kent State? Berkeley? UC Riverside? I know little about the basic courses required of undergraduates at institutions other than my own. (The same can be said for many of my colleagues.) How can I, lacking that knowledge, answer whether these should be increased or not?

Nowithstanding the vagueness of such questions, statistical conclusions based on them quickly find their way into the press, as in the October 24 Newsweek:

Ladd and Lipset will not finish their analysis until next year, but their poll already suggests one answer: More than three quarters of all professors think that colleges and universities should bring back the “core curriculum”—forcing all students to take more basic courses in a variety of fields.

Question 3d. A grading system which rigorously discriminates good student performance from bad contributes positively to student motivation.

Another sweeping generalization. Certain kinds of grading, under certain circumstances, do encourage learning; but I find that grading in itself, without other effective means of teaching to go along with it, does not necessarily have an effect one way or another. It may have effects both ways—negative and positive—depending on the personality of the professor, the subject matter, the relations between professors and students, the general atmosphere of the school.

Consider, for example, the spectacular case of the California Institute of Technology, where the faculty decided that the grading system contributed to an undesirable atmosphere. During the early 1960s, a large part of the freshman class at Caltech left after the first year; in 1963, the drop-out rate reached 23 percent. Apparently the students could not stand the exceptionally high pressure of the place. In 1965 the faculty set up the “pass-fail” system for freshmen that is still in force today. I know from first-hand experience that Caltech has one of the most intelligent and strongly motivated freshmen classes of any university in the country. None of the available answers can adequately represent my feelings concerning grading.

Question 3e. I find myself not grading as “hard,” not applying as high standards in assessing student work, as I believe I should.

Whichever way I answer the question—“definitely yes”; “only partly”; “definitely no”—I admit the question has meaning even though I believe this particular way of perceiving my relations to students and grading makes no sense. I resent such choices being imposed on me, and ultimately used and manipulated toward the formation of education policy which cannot be sound.

In Questions 3b, 3d, 3e the surveyors run up against the Heisenberg Principle. By harping on grading to the exclusion of other aspects of teaching, they contribute to giving grades more importance than I and many others think grades deserve. They emphasize a question of dubious journalistic interest; for one’s views on grading are sometimes interpreted as reflecting a “strict” versus a “permissive” frame of mind toward students. I do not wish to deal with such matters as grading on the surveyors’ terms.

Question 85. Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements on economic policy.

(1) Strongly agree

(2) Agree with reservations

(3) Disagree with reservations

(4) Strongly disagree

a. The private business system in the United States, for all its flaws, works better than any other system yet devised for advanced industrial societies.

Why, as stated in the cover letter, the surveyors seek our “judgments on a number of basic questions of national politics and policy” such as this one is left unclear. But this question and its possible answers are loaded with assumptions I cannot accept.

First I would point out that the “system” was not so much “devised” as it evolved through various phases and through various periods of history. At one time we had seemingly unbounded supplies of energy and natural resources; this situation has evidently changed. How an advanced industrial society like the US can adjust—both internally and relative to the outside world, e.g., OPEC—to using more expensive energy and dwindling resources is a question whose answer will vary according to the period we are concerned with. That the business system can hardly be called “private,” moreover, should be clear from the huge government contracts for defense and subsidies to railroads, agriculture, highway construction, energy research, etc.

The surveyors do not say with what other systems of “advanced industrial societies” they want me to compare the “private business system” of the US: Do they mean the systems of Western Europe (closely intertwined and similar)? Of Japan (similar)? Possibly that of the Soviet Union? If the latter, one fact that comes to my mind is that the US paid $45 billion this year for oil imports, while the USSR needs to make a grain deal with the US every year or so. Neither system seems to be working well, and both look as if they are heading toward a crisis.

  1. 1

    See Newsweek, October 24, 1977, The Manchester Guardian Weekly, January 22, 1978, Campus Report, January 18, 1978, and Ladd’s statement in Science, February 17, 1978.

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