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Review: The faculty lounges (by Naomi Schaefer Riley)

Book: The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Pay For
Author: Naomi Schaefer Riley
Publisher: Ivan R Dee (2011)

The pot of gold at the end of the tenure review process is still job security, even though powerful forces are working against the continuity of tenure as a higher education fixture. The conventional justification for tenure is dramatized through the Usual Circumstances and Suspects that prey on faculty: Budgets, administrators, unhappy students, and political, religious, or otherwise inspired off-campus harpies, such as present and former writers for the Wall Street Journal.

Naomi Riley is conventionally adequate at disparaging the academic serfdom associated with assignments to introductory classes during the tenure review process. Yes, assistant professors are often sacrificed on the altar of tuition streaming to help finance smaller classes and their ranking faculty. Yes, serfdom in the service of tuition streaming is matched by subject matter serfdom, in which entry level faculty are expected to demonstrate fealty to traditional knowledge production and delivery. And yes, undergraduates are often taught by graduate students, most of whom lust after the pot of gold.

Riley ticks off a laundry list of these and other tenure-related problems, none of which are new and nearly all of which are undocumented. Charges of shallowness are conveniently moot in her case, however, because she is neither an academic nor intellectually oriented in her writing. It goes without saying that she did not undergo the rigors of tenure evaluation. Riley appears to have acquired much of her largely intuitive opinions about higher education through contact with her parents, both academics, and by going to college. Her voice is flat; her style doggedly Wall Street Journal editorial/op-ed.

As former academic guilds speciate into “businesses”, and as business models and associated cultures virally infect otherwise healthy academic hosts, we may indeed find pressing reasons to protect faculty, not only from the Usual Circumstances and Suspects, but from colleagues who have mutated from guild members into competitive, intrapreneurial corporate personnel.

Sporting her largely unexamined defense of the virtues and inevitability of an Academic Rapture based on business values and models, Riley is an ideal flack for the Elimination of Tenure. The CEOs (aka the presidents) of more and more campuses will certainly pay her and others like her increasing heed.

Bottom line (as we say), Naomi Riley should be given kudos for a Contribution by Omission: A prominent, powerful, and evolving justification for tenure lies in the protection of faculty from shape-shifted corporate colleagues. This capability is one that should be taken up as a serious –even a top-drawer– justification for the continuation of tenure.

Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

One probabilistic computer per child


OLPC may see a new competitor enter the market. Utilizing a new microprocessor technology that embraces probabilistic logic computing rather than traditional boolean logic computing, a team at Rice University is designing a digital, touchscreen, LED slate for deployment in developing countries. Probabilistic computing permits devices to provide correct answers most of the time rather than all of the time, allowing for dramatic reductions in power consumption while speeding-up computations considerably. The reduced chip-based power consumption will allow the device to powered by solar cells.

From Popular Mechanics:

What it is: The “I-Slate,” a solar-powered, stylus-controlled classroom aid unveiled at the IEEE’s 125th Anniversary event on Tuesday. The idea is that this LED slate will replace the chalk slates still used in much of the world, allowing students to learn basic math skills without the need for a literate teacher (something that is in demand in much of the world). The device is being created by Dr. Krishna Palem and his team at Rice University.


The slate will be able to download coursework using wireless networks. And because these chips should be far cheaper to produce than the high-powered processors found in most new products, making them practical for the third world.

From Rice University’s news release:

Inspired by microfinance, the I-slate’s innovators intend to use social entrepreneurism to create a self-sustaining economic model for the I-slate that both creates jobs in impoverished areas and ensures the I-slate’s continued success regardless of ongoing philanthropic support.

The first prototype PCMOS chips were found to use 30 times less electricity while running seven times faster than today’s best technology. Palem’s PCMOS team includes researchers at Rice and at the Institute for Sustainable Nanoelectronics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where the first PCMOS prototypes were manufactured last year.

Can furloughs save land grant universities?

A friend and colleague at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington wrote to me that, “UNCW MAY be doing furloughs like we saw at ASU. […] they will say ‘take off a day a week.'” As more state-funded universities are looking at furloughs to help remedy financial crises, I’m starting to think that furloughs might not be a bad thing for land grant universities:

  • People are a university’s competitive advantage. Furloughs help reduce the possibilities that valuable employees will be laid-off. Also, it provides an incentive for underperforming staff to seek employment elsewhere, while maintaining healthcare and other benefits.
  • Furloughs help fulfill the university’s land grant mission by encouraging staff and faculty to seek additional engagement with the communities they serve. This could include consultancies, secondary employment, or broader volunteer involvement.
  • Deadweight and under-performing faculty will be encouraged to leave or retire through reduced financial incentives. This could help address one critical failure of the tenure system where many tenured faculty underperform and consume greater financial resources than the value they contribute.
  • Likewise, furloughs encourage faculty who are productive, yet more engaged outside of the university, to leave. For faculty members that spend more of their time consulting or engaged on outside projects that provide little benefit to the university, furloughs provide an incentive for them to formally sever their relationship with the university.

By incentivizing departures, rather than forcing them, land grant universities can re-invest in (new and continuing) faculty and staff that will enhance their competitive advantage. In an era of economic distress, furloughs also can send a message to the community that the university is committed to retaining their investment in the community through jobs and continued or expanded engagement.

Grim outlook on college affordability

Today, the New York Times reports that, “the rising cost of college — even before the recession — threatens to put higher education out of reach for most Americans,” rapidly outpacing increases in family income … and even outpacing increases in health care expenses. Citing a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the paper reveals that, “college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.”

I touched on the “cost disease” of higher education a bit in my doctoral dissertation:

Baumol and Wolff (1998) state that, “improving education is the approach that is most likely to have substantial and lasting results” (p. 5). Education, however, is subject to his second prediction, a “cost disease” hypothesis, which describes a productivity lag in labor-intensive industries that struggle to keep pace with accelerating change (see esp. Baumol & Bowen, 1966; Baumol & Towse, 1997). This results in reduced growth in productivity, and, as a result, the cost of educational services increases. Writing on Baumol’s related work on rising costs in the performing arts services sector, Heilbrun (2003) states the cost disease problem is not necessarily bleak: “The problem of productivity lag exists only because there is persistent technological progress in the general economy which causes a rise in output per work hour and in real wages, in other words a rise in per capita income, which, in turn, increases the demand for the arts” (p. 99).

But, there’s more. The recession is impacting the ability of states to cushion against rising college expenses, with many considering reducing contributions to public universities. Coupled, however, with the unique element of this particular economic downturn that makes it difficult for students to secure student loans, the middle class is particularly stressed and may lead to a larger gap in higher education access. Is public education becoming a luxury for the wealthy?


Baumol, W. J., & Bowen, W. G. (1966). Performing arts, the economic dilemma: A study of problems common to theater, opera, music, and dance. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Baumol, W. J., & Towse, R. (1997). Baumol’s cost disease: The arts and other victims. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, USA: E. Elgar.

Baumol, W. J., & Wolff, E. N. (1998). Side effects of progress. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

"No problem left behind"

Our second post this week on the United States’ unstable orbit around mediocrity focuses on Matt Miller’s critique of education in America from the January/February 2008 Atlantic Monthly: “First, kill all the school boards.” He writes that “local control has become a disaster for our schools” and that school districts are stunted by four key problems:

  1. No way to know how children are doing. And, NCLB is not helping.
  2. Stunted R&D: “Local control has kept education from attracting the research and development that drives progress, because benefits of scale are absent.”
  3. Incompetent school boards and union dominance. (No need to elaborate on this one…)
  4. Financial inequity: “Communities with high property wealth can tax themselves at low rates and still generate far more dollars per pupil than poor communities taxing themselves heavily.”

The solution he argues? Get rid of school boards and remove local control of schools. It may seem counter-intuitive, but…

Research in 46 countries by Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich has shown that setting clear external standards while granting real discretion to schools in how to meet them is the most effective way to run a system. We need to give schools one set of national expectations, free educators and parents to collaborate locally in whatever ways work, and get everything else out of the way.

More solutions to mediocrity in American education are coming up next week.