What’s Wrong with being a Professor Today?

… in a word, universities.

Now, I mustn’t mislead you. I’m not complaining for myself, wasn’t disappointed in my career in universities. Not at all, but it’s very different today. I heard you saying, “But isn’t everything different?” which of course is true, but it’s the only career I know and I still care about.

What could be better than being paid for what you’d be happy doing for nothing? For me, it was the chance to study wonders of nature and human biology surrounded by bright and eager young minds. But the time-honored ideal of combining research and scholarship with teaching has been under strain for years, and big changes are afoot.  Really big.

When universities no longer served only the elite but opened their doors to everyone who qualified and could pay, we all benefitted.  They were never very effective as incubators of genius, but they helped many, many people, including myself, to have the life our grandparents’ generation could never even dream of.  The emergence of mega-universities brought a bundle of changes, including tighter management and erosion of ivory-towered privileges, forcing the disappearance from faculty of eccentrics and, less regrettably, ‘dead wood’.

As a grad student, I remember meeting a young Cambridge professor looking the worse for wear with a rose flush as if he’d stumbled out of a party, but it was only noon. Someone whispered that after ‘his brilliant Ph.D. dissertation’ he was tenured and given stewardship of the well-stocked college wine cellar.  No professor today can hope for a secure future immediately after champagne popping to celebrate the first race: he or she must run the course and win again and again.

A few years later in another university I was slapped on the back by the senior professor whose lectures I had just inherited. He blithely told me that when I reached his age I too could slip out on weekdays to the golf course, and with that he headed into the morning sunshine donning a flat cap.  Times have changed.

During my career spanning three countries (four if Scotland secedes from the UK), both public and private universities have become a lot more mercantile.  No longer was it good enough to muddle through, and accountants were sitting at High Table. Few people mourned the passing age of great amateurs, but everything has its price.

Classes are more cost-effective for 500 than 50, though students never know their professor.  New tower blocks to accommodate more students and glitzy labs are fine, but they are paid for by student fees, donations, and fat research grants of professors whose stars may fall.  We were urged to patent our discoveries, which sometimes constrained progress in other labs and rarely earned royalties for our university. Unfashionable research had to go because it didn’t pay, but looking back on my career only the projects that never attracted grant funding had any lasting impact.  With ever narrower

specialization polymaths became an extinct species, creating intellectual pygmies of us; one day I even counseled a grad student distraught because she, ‘still hadn’t found her molecule to work on”.  Over the years, college presidents launched ever more grandiose schemes for hauling in donations from alumni for bigger sports stadiums and infrastructure, for which more administrators were hired to take the strain.

Professor

Pygmy professor

As endowments grew, some to well over $1 bn, you might think the corridors of academia are paved with gold, but many colleges are struggling or debt-ridden.  Have they over-reached?  How are they managing when balance sheets tip into red and students wonder about value-for-money?  The hierarchy struggles to secure the future amid squabbling academics, as it did even in the good times.

I saw one college president and a dean fall, and three chairmen were ousted from my departments. Their lessons taught me to bolt from the door labeled, ‘Administration’, to a safe burrow for research professors.  But the true casualties are the students who drop out with debts but no degrees, and graduates who struggle to pay off loans when they eventually find employment, often not the job for which they were trained.  The recession has made matters so much worse when fees are still rising much faster than inflation, clearing $50,000 at some schools.

Unless academic bubbles never burst, defying physics, this trend cannot go much further. I’m sure we won’t go backwards, to an age when there was no birthright to higher education, because we need to grow a trained workforce and nations that are too under-educated to grasp a complex world will fall behind.  So what is the future?

Since I.T. has transformed the way we take photos, read books and newspapers, and even conduct warfare, its impact on education through online courses was bound to mushroom.  Institutions looking the other way will likely go the way of companies who made camera film and encyclopedias. There may be some schools that cling to an older model, perhaps like William and Mary down the road from our home, and they may stay the course without wholesale changes.  I hope they can. Some, like my alma mater resist going online, hoping that a traditional and beautiful residential environment will still draw students.  If only for loyalty’s sake, I hope so, but we will see widespread academic collapse and amalgamation.

Knowledge is not ‘owned’ by universities; they are providers of learning services through their faculty and infrastructure. Setting aside practical subjects and the research bench, much can be delivered to the desktop via the Internet. Since the ancient professor-student system is broken, the loss of face-to-face contact is not as dramatic as it would have been a couple of generations ago.  Plenty of challenges still face electronic delivery of classes and examinations, but I think they are all tractable, and the benefits of lower fees, working from home, part-time study, rewinding an online lecture, etc. more than compensate for drawbacks.

Duke_University

Duke at Hazard

Back in 1971, Britain’s Open University started running open access degrees by radio and TV with occasional face-to-face tutorials. Some of my family enrolled. That standards were not sacrificed by distance learning can be judged by graduates who were recruited afterwards to top research centers for their Ph.D.  The elephant of online degree programs since 1989 has been the University of Phoenix which offers numerous for-profit courses, especially in business, I.T., nursing, and education. My own experience of undergraduate teaching has only been in the lecture hall and lab, but I did create online master degrees for embryology 10-15 years ago in the UK and USA, and they are still going strong. So I have declared where I think the compass points.

In the past couple of years, top professors at Stanford and elsewhere have launched ‘massive open online courses’ which have collectively enrolled well over a million students already. Udacity even offers free courses, and I hope it finds a business model for when start-up funds from venture capital are exhausted. In a December review of this revolution, The Economist mentioned that Udacity founder, Professor Sebastian Thrun, predicts that in fifty years only ten universities will be left in the world.

Whether his crystal-ball gazing was meant to be pessimistic or hopeful, I’m not sure, but Mark Cuban writing in the Huff Post asks if your college will go broke before you graduate!  Anyway, the future will be very different to Charles Ryder’s student days in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, or even to my own time when we had few cares apart from our studies among ivy-clad cloisters and dreamy spires.  Yet, the birth of a new ideal, creating a road-map that reaches across the globe for democratizing higher education, is as admirable as any noble endeavor.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;

On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;

From underneath his helmet flow’d

His coal-black curls as on he rode,

As he rode down to Camelot.

(The Lady of Shalott)

Next Post: Bee-line

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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3 Responses to What’s Wrong with being a Professor Today?

  1. John McConkey says:

    I graduated in 1965 from the University of London (England) with a BSc in Maths (“Special” – whatever that means). I have little hesitation in claiming that nothing I learned there has been useful in my professional career. This took me from being a Computer Programmer at ICL London to stints as Manager of System Development and Test groups with CDL Montreal and Nortel Ottawa and eventually Network Security Consultant with my own company in Ottawa. I will backpedal a little on that claim since I probably would not even have been offered interviews had I not been able to show that I was a university graduate – and maybe some learning skills brushed off on me also. For 3 long years I would religiously journey in to the university (not called “uni” in those days) for daily lectures and spend my time there furiously copying down notes. There was little interaction between the class and the lecturer. Often the lecturers were knowledgeable on their subject but poor at teaching it and so frequently in the evening it was a matter of going over the day’s notes to try to understand them. I drew no pleasure out of learning in those days and my fondest memories of my university days were the social aspects such as the weekend (field) hockey matches followed by a visit to the pub and a challenge to down (in a single evening) a pint at the closest pub to every station on the Northern Line between college and home (we only got halfway!). Looking back I think the money spent on me attending university – fortunately it all came from the local government – could have been better put towards the production of an accurate and well-written set of notes, a copy of which could have been handed to each student at the beginning of term. Then if anyone needed extra tuition, that could be given on an as-needed basis. Students would then just need to hand in tests and show up for exams. One student used a very innovative and successful approach. He rarely attended lectures. His marks for tests were always lowest in the class. He had a great social life however. Nobody thought he would even graduate but he came through with a 1st Class Hons degree. Apparently he just crammed all his learning into that last term. Co-op programs were non-existent in those days. However my son took such a program at the University of Waterloo – again in Math(s). He did work-terms with companies involved in computer software, aerospace and insurance but again has not really used his academic training in his career. At least he was not new to business when he landed his first job as I was! So the bottom line is I agree that universities need to innovate and keep up with the times in order to keep the attention of students and churn out graduates well-prepared for their future careers. Maybe then people like me would be less reluctant to contribute to the many requests for charity donations.

  2. “Whats wrong with being a professor today? | Roger Gosden musing”
    definitely makes myself contemplate a somewhat further.

    I enjoyed each and every individual component of this blog post.

    Thanks for your time ,Eulalia

    • Roger Gosden says:

      I’m not sure if I already replied, but if so I’m sending thanks again for your comment. I wanted to write mostly about science, medicine and nature, but gravity sometimes pulls me towards other stuff. I was hesitant even to mention the word math in last week’s post, but there are such strong winds blowing through publishing these days affecting all writers that I grabbed them as an example. And enjoyed the challenge. Whether a post about Marmite can be made appetizing we will see next time when I write about Marmageddon. Roger

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