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The Decline of Higher Learning

American Professors is a book with a message. Its authors call the academic profession a “national resource imperiled.” The most promising college graduates no longer wish to be professors. Among Rhodes Scholars selected in 1950–1954, almost half joined a university; among the 1975–1977 group, fewer than one in five chose college teaching. For Phi Beta Kappas, the proportion fell from 23 percent to 7 percent. “Working conditions in the academic profession,” they write, “have been gradually deteriorating since about 1970.” Financially, “sharp declines in real and relative salaries combined to…lower the morale of college and university faculty members.” According to the Department of Education, the purchasing power of professors’ pay has declined by 16 percent since the early 1970s.

However, other research in Bowen’s and Schuster’s book would suggest that morale is high. They report that 82 percent of all teachers say they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the course of their careers. If 86 percent of the full professors feel this way, so do 73 percent of assistant professors. The interviews are even more affirmative:

Where else could I have as much freedom to do what I love to do?

This is the greatest life and job that one could have.

Twelve-hour teaching loads, the tenure system and academic freedom. Not a bad deal!

(Twelve classroom hours a week, it may be noted, is twice the teaching load at elite universities.) It would seem that faculty life is still pretty good, even with a 16 percent drop in pay.

The American academic profession,” Finkelstein says, “is essentially a teaching as opposed to a scholarly profession.” More than half of all professors devote fewer than five hours a week to research, while upward of a third admit to none at all. It has been argued that the pressure to publish has led to the publication of far too many books, more than a few of which might better have appeared as articles. Similarly, making tenure decisions hinge on publication may explain much of the inattention to teaching. In actual practice, however, research is not always expected. A recent survey of some five thousand faculty members found that 60 percent had never published, or even edited, a book in their field.9 This can be as true of full professors as of their junior colleagues, since by no means all deliver on the promise that won them their promotions. “Over the course of an academic career,” Finkelstein notes, “faculty tend to gradually lose interest in teaching and research.” As one professor put it:

You get on committees. You don’t have access to a library for research in your field. Things slip away from you. Time passes, and you must deal with the reality of not having published for a great number of years.10

But most of these statements come from or apply to people already secure in their jobs. During the Sixties and early Seventies, professors gave one another tenure with a lavish hand. So much so, as Table C shows, that permanent appointments now account for upward of 80 percent of some faculties.


Moreover, most of these people are now in their midforties or fifties, which makes them middle-aged but still some distance from retirement. Unfortunately, it will be at least a dozen years before faculties will be able to hire younger people on a large scale. In fact, the wait may be even longer. Given the likelihood of legislation banning age-based retirement rules, senior members with undemanding schedules may choose to continue in the classroom.

The last decade has been bleak for anyone embarking on an academic career. As Emily Abel puts it in Terminal Degrees, there is a lost generation of “disposable dons,” many holding Ph.D.’s, who spend single years at successive institutions, never knowing until late summer where they will be next. According to the NIE report, faculty who teach part-time rose from 23 percent in 1966 to 41 percent in 1980, and the current figure may be higher. “We string them along,” a chairman admitted, “yet we have not hired a single fulltime person in my department since 1969.”11 Some teach simultaneously at several places, sometimes as far as a hundred miles from their home base. Abel suggests that at least part of the blame rests with graduate professors. Their desire for specialized seminars and personal disciples led them to keep recruiting doctoral candidates even though they were aware of the shrinking job market.

In fact, there could be more openings for junior faculty. Most places are top-heavy with full professors who absorb as much as three-quarters of the academic payroll. Drawing on a sample of schools (Table D, opposite page), I found a total of 6,022 full professors and only 2,375 at the assistant level.


I also computed how many more assistant professors each institution could hire—at its prevailing rates—if their full professors agreed to take a 10 percent cut in pay. These colleges could add 1,090 assistant professors, an increase for that rank of 45 percent. As a professor myself, I offer no opinion on whether professors are over-or underpaid, but merely display the distribution of the academic pie. I might add it is far from self-evident that all those $50,000 salaries—for thirty three-day (at most) work weeks—are responses to market forces. Even at the most distinguished institutions, not all professors are stars who must be lavishly paid lest they be lured away. Indeed, were cuts imposed, most faculty members would remain in place, since no other university wants them. As it happens, the mobility of teachers among colleges is currently at an all-time low.

Not only is education a labor-intensive industry, but academic payrolls contain more upper-middle-class salaries than most other institutions. Thus far, parents and taxpayers, many of whom earn considerably less, have not objected to paying these bills. For the current academic year, tuition alone at Harvard totals $11,340, while for Brown the figure is $11,155. These figures do not include books, travel, or room and board, which come close to doubling the cost. Compared with Bowdoin, Wellesley, and Stanford, all with tuitions over $10,000, Duke looks like a bargain at only $8,500. It should be added that students are paying much of their own way through loans. Whereas the family income of students who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test this year averaged over $40,000, parents typically contributed only $3,500 toward college costs. Currently, some 3.3 million young people are borrowing $9 billion, which they hand over to bursars’ offices. Many will graduate as much as $30,000 in debt, with repayments slated to begin when they receive their first paycheck.


It is not easy to generalize about the current undergraduate generation, if only because they tend to be laconic about their thoughts and feelings. One hears a good deal about their concern with careers; but that need not mean there have been basic changes in their values. Just how many are exercised over what is happening in Central America or South Africa, for example, is difficult to discern. Still, if they are more conservative, they are less so than their elders. Fifty-one percent of full-time students supported Ronald Reagan’s reelection, compared with 59 percent for the rest of the country. At the same time, most professors sense there is less idealism in the air. For the last sixteen years, Alexander Astin of UCLA has been polling college freshmen on their attitudes and goals. His most recent survey, for the fall of 1985, found that only 44 percent hoped college would help them “develop a philosophy of life,” compared with 85 percent with such a faith in 1968.12 Needless to say, defections from the liberal arts may have contributed to that change.

Fewer of the women students said that being well-off financially was for them a major goal. They are more liberal on such issues as racial integration, military spending, and homosexuality. Apparently they were drawn to these sentiments before they went to college. Indeed, the docile daughter is fast disappearing. A recent study of high school students reveals that on politics and religion and ideas about family life, girls differ from their fathers more often than boys do. 13

Indeed, women are now a major presence on most campuses. Currently they make up over half of all undergraduate enrollments, and also a majority of all bachelors’ and masters’ degrees. (Among black students, women account for almost 60 percent of these totals.) They are now receiving 32 percent of academic doctorates, along with 25 percent of those in medicine and 33 percent in law.

A 1980 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 40 percent of high school girls received mostly As and Bs, compared with a quarter of the boys. While we have no similar figures for college, we know that women undergraduates are more likely to finish, whereas the dropout rate for men has recently been rising. Informal evidence suggests that outside of the sciences women do at least as well as men. Yet last year the top graduate at Annapolis, essentially an engineering school, was a woman. One no longer hears professors saying that women type neater papers but show less intellectual flair. In 1963, almost half of all of women undergraduates majored in education; twenty years later, only 15 percent were doing so. Now their most frequent major is business administration.

So far as the academic profession is concerned, the 32 percent of Ph.D.’s women currently receive is up from 11 percent a quarter century ago. Still, the figures in Emily Abel’s Terminal Degrees suggest they have had little luck on the academic ladder. Five times as many women Ph.D.’s remain unemployed; and if they manage to get jobs, the odds are it will be part-time work. In addition, Abel contends, almost twice as many women have positions that hold no chance for promotion. And when they are candidates for permanent appointments, she says, they “are far less likely than their male colleagues to attain tenure.”

Is discrimination still rampant in academic hiring? The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that women comprise 37 percent of the nation’s 620,000 college and university teachers. At first reading, this figure looks relatively equitable, higher than the 16 percent for lawyers and physicians. But it will come as no surprise that most of the women hold junior positions. The only breakdown for academic ranks is in a 1981–1982 National Center for Education Statistics study covering some 400,000 full-time faculty members, a somewhat selective group, as it does not include part-time people, most of whom are women. As Table E on the following page shows, over three-quarters of the women are at or below the assistant professor level, and only 10 percent hold full professorships.

  1. 9

    Ernest Boyer, “The Faculty: Deeply Troubled,” Change (September-October, 1985), p.34.

  2. 10

    Chronicle of Higher Education (June 19, 1985).

  3. 11

    Chronicle of Higher Education (September 4, 1985).

  4. 12

    Chronicle of Higher Education (January 15, 1986).

  5. 13

    The Mood of Youth (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1984).

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