Acton Institute Powerblog

How Comfy Are Faculty Lounges

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In the opening scenes of the classic movie version of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” the narrator tells us that the newspaper boy we are watching toss papers onto the porches nearby will go on to college — an ivy league college I recall — but is sent to Europe during WWI and dies. “All that education for nothing,” he laments.

Naomi Riley has written another book about academia. The large type on the book jacket reads “The Faculty Lounges”  but under that banner is the book’s real warning: “… and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for.”

That second part is addressed to the payer, and in most cases, the payer is mom and dad. So if you’re a mom or dad you’d best take a look at this offering from Ms. Riley while the kids are still in grade school and start your homework lessons on where you’re likely to get the best bang for your buck. Because although Riley offers good suggestions and a smattering of potential improvements to the business plans of America’s college and university campuses, they aren’t likely to be implemented on any large scale by the time little Jimmie or his sister is ready for college. The wheels of the academy turn slowly.

In a recent column reflective of his tv shows, John Stossel remarks, “What puzzles me is why the market doesn’t punish colleges that don’t serve their customers well. The opposite has happened: Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation.”

That reality and more is provided in Faculty Lounges but not by tv personalities. No, the sources of Ms. Riley’s information in many cases are members of the education establishment themselves. And they’re not very forgiving in the criticism.

But Stossel’s comments are poignant. As consumers, parents and the children they finance through four or more years of college tuition, room and board are getting screwed to put it bluntly, or at least defrauded, and nobody seems to care about the protection these consumers aren’t getting. Certainly not the education industry.

You can only get the full picture by reading the book but I can tell you that faculty tenure and the unreal situation it nurtures is a big piece of why college costs so much and continues to get more expensive. Imagine having a workforce that agreed to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2:00, notwithstanding the time it takes for lunch? But despite that work schedule continues to be paid like a full time 40 hours per week employee. Now imagine having an entire workforce of such folks but a physical plant with classroom space based on a capacity that is suited to having students in the rooms from 8 am to 5 pm. In business we call it underutilized plant capacity. It’s the reason you have a night shift or swing shift when business is booming.

In the surreal world of academia, such concepts would never be discussed. Instead, buildings continue to be built, new departments funded and staffed, and tuition raised, raised, and raised again. Where will it end? A tilting point is often reached when mom and dad, facing financial calamity or at the least really tough times, tell little Jimmie to find a job and put college on hold. That’s what happened to my mom and dad in 1932. They met and were married a few years later.

One thing stands out in the many anecdotes in this book and that is how the undergrads financially support the graduate programs. If you know someone who has been accepted or is participating in a PhD program you might have also been told that the tuition, room and board and a stipend were part of the deal. Of course these opportunities are only available to really bright kids but still, haven’t you wondered who’s paying the bills. Well, it’s you and your undergrad. And who’s taking care of the tenured professor’s classes? one of his grad students. And not getting paid for it either. That’s a good reason to think twice about little Jimmie attending the prestigious university with the myriad of researching scholars.

For many, tenure or lifetime job security is what makes the academic life palatable. Yet many use the “academic freedom” argument to make their case. Liberals argue that they’d never survive proposing their enlightenment theories without the protection of tenure. Conservatives argue that they’d never be able to come out of the political closet without tenure. Both making this case in a country that links its founding to freedom of speech, assembly, faith. It makes you wonder if anybody could pass a civics test — teacher and student alike.

Of course all of this talk of college, money and careers has been the subject of the month of June since school calendars were first printed. Books rush to the shelves and abound on how to get into college; is college for everyone; the missing “core” curriculum; and is it all worth the money. But until we consumers really start to push back, it’s likely that for many schools, nothing will change despite the revelations and suggestions like those in Riley’s book. And it’s parents who have to lead here. And either way prepare their children for life with a eye on the unexpected and the common sense to avoid danger.

In April a Yale senior astronomy and physics major was found dead in a college lab. She was working alone during the night with a machine tool — a lathe — and somehow her hair which was long and dangling had been wrapped around the spinning chuck and she had either choked or her neck was broken. Some, reacting to the tragedy, blamed Yale for not sufficiently supervising her.

“All that education for nothing.”

Ken Larson Ken Larson is a businessman and writer who with his wife recently moved from their native state California to a semi-rural part of Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay. A graduate of California State University with a major in English, his eclectic career includes editing the first "reloading manual" for Sierra Bullets [something that earns him major league credibility when picking crabs with new friends on Sunday afternoons] and authoring a novel about a family's school choice decisions titled ReEnchantment, A Schoolboy's Adventure. His web site is http://www.reenchantment.net. For ten years, Ken was the only Protestant on The Consultative School Board for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange near Los Angeles and chaired their inaugural Catholic Conference on Business and Ethics in support of needy parish schools in the diocese. He continues to be active in his new community and mindful of America's civic education malaise.

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