BRIAN LAMB: Naomi Schaefer Riley, on page 11 of your preface, you say, ”It’s a con game made to suit the interests of the tenured faculty who would prefer to write obscure tomes rather than teach broad introductory classes to freshmen.” What’s the con game?
NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY: Well, it occurred to me in researching this book that the professors have very different interests than students and parents do in higher education. What gets rewarded, if you’re a professor, is publication, publication and more publication.
And it’s actually, it’s not your imagination, in case you’ve read an academic book lately it’s actually supposed to be obscure. Because you as an academic have to basically blaze new trails. You have to always be saying something new.
So for instance, last year there were a hundred new academic works published on Shakespeare. Now, love Shakespeare; studied Shakespeare in college. But I have to wonder whether there is it’s actually worth a professor’s time to be writing new kind of, you know, theoretical twists on Shakespeare, as opposed to teaching a broad introductory class on ”Hamlet.”
LAMB: Where did this all start, the need to publish?
RILEY: Well, it started really with the progressives in the 1920s. There was this whole idea of a research university, which came over from Germany and sort of planted itself on our shores in the early part of the 20th Century. And it was really sort of kind of two things. One was with the scientific research, you know, especially in the physical and biological sciences people really were blazing new trails. And, you know, there was a lot of new ground broken. And the whole idea was that nobody really could judge the quality of the work, unless you were really, truly familiar with this sort of new, complex scientific system that was being employed.
And, you know, I think I get that on some level. But what happened was the standard for the physical sciences then shifted over into the social sciences and the humanities. And suddenly, those professors always had to be saying something new. And those professors could only be judged, again, by people inside their field.
There was also another progressive idea, which was that the professoriate were supposed to sort of form the experts in society. They were supposed to be what we now call the public intellectuals, and they were supposed to be kind of adding to society’s store of knowledge.
And again, I think this is one result that you see of this today is that professors kind of stand apart, and we are not supposed to, in the broader society, kind of really question what it is that they’re doing when they’re engaged in their research.
LAMB: The title of your book is ”The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” Where’d you get the idea? Why is this necessary now, this book?
RILEY: Well, you know, higher education right now, I think we’re having kind of a crisis of confidence, if you look at the surveys. You know, generally, Americans love higher education. I talked to one pollster who said, you know, it’s like mom and apple pie. But I think right now, the costs have gotten to the point where people are really questioning higher education’s value.
And so, in my opinion, this is actually a very good time to look at kind of where we’ve come, and not to say that we need to scrap the whole system, or that college education isn’t worth it; but to say that we do need to build more accountability into the system. And I think that for students and parents who are paying those tuition bills, we really need to have a good sense of what kind of undergraduate education they’re getting.
LAMB: How many schools are there in the United States that grant four-year degrees?
RILEY: There are about 5,000 or 6,000 accredited colleges. And so, you know, it’s obviously hard to write kind of a broad book that kind of covers what all of them are doing, because they’re engaged in many different kinds of activities. You know, some of them are you know, consider themselves more vocational, some of them consider themselves liberal arts, some of them want to be research universities. But there are some things that they seem to have in common. And one of them is this sort of drive to research.
I was very surprised to find that even at community colleges, in so-called teaching universities you know, not research universities the drive to publish is what is always rewarded at these schools.
LAMB: What kind of a home did you grow up in?
RILEY: An academic one, of course.
LAMB: Where was it?
RILEY: In Massachusetts. My parents met getting their Ph.D.s at the University of Chicago. And now my sister has her own. So I’m the last member of my family without one, and maybe that will tell you something.
But I mean, I grew up very with a with a deep sense that higher education can be extraordinarily worthwhile, and that it can really it can change your character, it can change your life, it could change your career, can change everything if it’s done right. But what I worry about is many of the faculty and it’s not just, you know, the faculty individually making decisions. But the incentives that are put in place in the system, I think, are what are undermining the undergraduate education.
LAMB: Where did you get your degree?
RILEY: I got my degree from Harvard.
LAMB: In what?
RILEY: English and government.
LAMB: Was it worth the money?
RILEY: Well, you have to ask my parents. It was their money. But no, I think it was. You know. But I had an advantage. I mean, I had parents who actually were insiders and who were able to advise me about what kind of classes to take, and which professors were actually interested in teaching. And you know, and I knew what to look for.
And I really think so few people have that going into college. And, you know, their parents are just thinking well, this is the next logical step. I want, you know, Junior to be a member of the middle class or the upper middle class, and I want them to have a good job, and I want them to, you know, get something out of college educationally. So let’s just send them to here because, you know, this is what ”U.S. News and World Report” says.
LAMB: Where do where do your parents teach?
RILEY: My father teaches at Holy Cross, in Worcester. And my mother doesn’t teach anymore. She taught at a number of different colleges before founding her own think tank in Worcester that tells the city of Worcester what it does wrong.
LAMB: So what do they think of this book?
RILEY: Well, you know, I joke with my father the subtitle of the book could’ve been ”Confessions of an Ungrateful Child.” But I think he I think he takes some of the criticisms of the book very seriously. And I think, you know, he feels as if, you know, being at a small liberal arts college, some of the criticisms are not as applicable. But you know, in a in a great deal of ways, you know, small liberal arts colleges are not really representative of what most Americans experience in higher education.
But I always emphasized to him that this that the finding one of, I think, the most important things that I learned researching the book was that for every additional hour a professor spends in the classroom, he or she will get paid less. And that was true not only at the big state universities, but it was true at small liberal arts colleges, too.
LAMB: Well, wait a minute, let’s go back on that statistic. What are you really saying that, I mean, if you’re a teacher and you’re in the classroom the more you spend in there, the less you make?
RILEY: Basically, any time spent in the classroom is time not spent writing. So depending on how you divide your time, that will determine what level you will reach in the professoriate.
LAMB: Who are they writing for?
RILEY: Each other. I mean, I don’t I don’t know, you know, when the last time, you know, you picked up a kind of an academic publication was. But, you know, even ”Harvard University Press,” I think, recently said that, you know, the average circulation of one of their you know, one of their academic publications is 250 books.
So when you consider that a lot of those books are actually just purchased automatically by libraries and, you know, that’s ”Harvard University Press” when you think about all of the smaller university presses out there that are having a circulation even smaller than that and, by the way, the expense of those books, I don’t you know, I mean, academic librarians complain about this to me; but, you know, students complain, too.
So to me, you know somebody wrote a paper recently where they said that the academic publication industry was driven by the producers and not the consumers. And, you know, I think that that says it all.
LAMB: Was this book your idea, or the publisher’s idea?
RILEY: It was my idea.
LAMB: Ivan R. Dee ...
LAMB: ... now owned by, what, Rowman & Littlefield?
RILEY: Rowman & Littlefield, yes.
LAMB: Define the word not define it, but explain how someone gets tenure, and what is it?
RILEY: So, when you go to a university, you could be offered something called a tenure-track position. About I don’t know, maybe 40 to 50 percent of academic positions out there are either tenure or tenure-track now.
So if you’re on the tenure track, what happens is when you arrive at the university, they start a clock. And the clock goes for about seven years, although at some universities has actually been lengthened. Like, I think at the University of Michigan, they recently lengthened it to ten years. And during that time, you have to show why the university should keep you on permanently. And what you do during that time the universities most universities claim that three things matter. What matters is your publication record, your teaching record and your service to the university so serving on a variety of committees. They call this in academic, they call this the three-legged stool of academia.
So during that time, you know which, by the way, coincides with a lot of other things going on in your life I mean, people have pointed out, for instance, that usually, this is sort of between 30 and 40 say, you know, when women are, you know, maybe wanting to have children, start families, do other things; this is when kind of the most intensive part of your career is going on, when it’s kind of an all-or-nothing.
So at the end of that clock, a committee usually, basically, of your own department members will look at that, at your record, and say up or down.
LAMB: So your fellow professors are doing this?
RILEY: Exactly. And most of them, in your own discipline. It’s not like, you know, some professor from another department who doesn’t know you. It will be the people that you have basically been with every day for the last seven or eight years will be sitting in secret judgment of you to decide whether or not you get to stay or leave.
LAMB: Secret judgment?
RILEY: Yes. Oh, absolutely. The proceedings of tenured committees are not made public.
And, you know, there was actually recently an interesting piece by a guy named Daniel Drezner, who is a professor now at Tufts, about how he did not get tenure at the University of Chicago a number of years ago. And he was talking about kind of and he his wife, actually, even contributed to the piece, too, about how it feels to sort of be judged in this way by the people who you thought were closest to you and who you had worked with collegially; and then they sort of go into this back room and kind of decide about your future.
So what happens at that vote, the tenure vote, is you either get to stay on permanently, or you get out.
RILEY: There’s no I mean, or by the next by the following academic year. There’s no in-between. It’s not like oh, well, we’ll give you another couple years and see if your publication record improves; or why don’t you just stay on on a part-time or temporary basis? It’s you’re done.
LAMB: What’s the percentage of professors teaching on a tenure track that get tenure?
RILEY: I’m not sure. I mean, I think what you know, if you’re on a tenure track, that means that they have a tenured position available at some point in the future. So some universities have started to cut down on the number of tenure tracks. That is, when somebody retires, you know, they will say OK, that’s going to be now an adjunct position, which we can we can get to in a minute.
But, you know, getting turned down for tenure is a very is a very common thing. And I think a lot of people feel like they’ve been led on like they do this certain number of years in university. And once you’ve been turned down for tenure at one university, it’s very hard to start over, and start from scratch at a new university.
LAMB: Do they give you any warning during those seven years or, in the University of Michigan’s case, ten years that you’re not doing well?
RILEY: Some universities give you give you updates along the way. But again, I mean, it’s a very it’s a very personality-driven process. And you know, some schools, you know, grade you based on your collegiality, which, you know, is sort of, you know, how well you play with others, which I think is kind of insulting to a professional. But they also you know, and they’ll give you some sense, you know, in terms of how big your stack of publications is you know, how they think how they think you’re doing relative to other candidates. But from what I’ve read and a lot of people find it to be a surprise if they don’t get tenure.
LAMB: Is there any appeal process if you did not get tenure?
RILEY: Some schools have them. I mean, they’re you know, and again, there’s a lot of there’s not a lot of transparency in the process. And I think that that that that should bother more people than it does, particularly at universities. But so some schools do have this kind of back-alley way of, you know, finding your way into, you know, maybe the president’s office or the provost’s office and saying you want to be reconsidered. And maybe then the provost will suggest to the department it’s time to reconsider. Some schools have more formalized procedures. But a lot of them, it’s really hard to discern.
LAMB: Help me out here the professors don’t have a transparent process. But if you listen to what comes out of a professor over years, they’re demanding all the time of openness.
RILEY: Yes, well, that’s you know, the professoriate is not among the more self-reflective bodies, in my opinion, in this country. And I think there’s not a lot of examination of what goes on. They want to talk about, you know, bioethics; they want to talk about, you know, government ethics. But there’s not a lot of talk about what goes on in the academy and the ethics of that. So I think the lack of transparency in the tenure process is one of the biggest problems that I see there.
LAMB: If you were to point out the person that you know that hates this book the most, who would it be?
RILEY: Boy. Let’s see. Well, I think the head of the American Association of University Professors was asked to comment on my book by ”Inside Higher Ed” a few weeks ago. And I think he said that it left him speechless. So I was happy to take credit for that. But I think he was he was very, very angry.
And particularly, I think, what most professors disagree with in that book is a is my argument about tenure’s connection to academic freedom. That’s sort of the first thing that comes out of professors’ mouths when you say why do you need tenure? And they will automatically, without thinking, just say oh, to protect academic freedom.
So I have a chapter in there, that’s the first chapter. And I and I talk about, you know, what is academic freedom, and why does it need protecting? One of the arguments that I make is about the rise of vocational education. You know, tenure was originally this idea that professors should be able to be protected when they go out on a limb and say something controversial about their discipline.
You know,, and I say OK, well, maybe on the margins you can see how, you know, this would be important in the case of a couple of humanities professors, maybe a couple of cutting-edge science you know, physical science professors but, you know, professors of business administration. And then I sort of also talk about, you know, some of the new disciplines that have come up you know, security studies. You know, there are there are basically professors of cooking who now have you know, professors of nutritional studies, they call it who have tenure now.
And you know, when pressed, you know, someone at the AAUP, or a professor who’s, you know, towing the party line, will say oh, well, we need someone to have tenure in security studies, so they can, you know, talk about immigration, even though it’s controversial. And someone in nutritional studies needs to be able to say something controversial about obesity. You know, this could go indefinitely. I mean, you could there’s no limit to the number of controversial things that need protection.
But, you know, in my opinion, I think that the you know, the bounds of academic freedom have just gotten have just been pushed too far.
LAMB: You wrote, in that first chapter the American people themselves are directly responsible for what she sees as the oppressive atmosphere on campus. And you’re referring back to a woman named Bernstein.
LAMB: What are you talking about there? Directly why are the American people responsible?
RILEY: So, Elizabeth Bernstein is a vice president at the Ford Foundation. And I went to hear her talk at a conference on academic freedom in New York a couple of years ago. And the Ford Foundation gives so much money to higher education that, you know, the audience was enthralled to hear Elizabeth Bernstein talk.
And, you know, she began to list the threats that she saw in the American Academy to academic freedom. And she listed, oh, you know, conservative religious groups; she listed anti-evolution groups, she listed Republicans. I mean, it just sort of went on and on. But at the end, she said one of the biggest problems she saw were cable news networks like Fox, for instance that were telling the American people about professors, you know, like the man at Columbia who wished upon, you know, America a million Mogadishus. Or, you know or telling people about Ward Churchill, telling people about the outrages of American universities. And to her, you know, what the problem was not the outrageous; the problem was that now the American public was interested in the outrageous.
And, you know, the idea again, we get back to this question about you know, you think that university professors and the people who are interested in higher education want transparency. You would think that’s sort of one of their buzzwords. But no. I mean, they look at transparency as oh, now all these, you know sort of, you know, the little people are now looking over my shoulder. And they couldn’t possibly understand the scholarship that I’m engaged in.
LAMB: You, in the next paragraph, say just to be clear, here was a representative of the Ford Foundation, the sugar daddy of modern liberalism, complaining that innovations like 24-hour news networks the sugar daddy of modern is that what they are, a liberal foundation?
RILEY: Oh, sure. I mean, Ford Foundation has basically was responsible for sort of funding the Great Society before it was, you know, funded by the government. I mean and even now, if you look on campus, I mean, what are the programs the Ford Foundation funds? They fund something called the Difficult Dialogues program, where as a college they will give you if you’re a college administration, they will give you $100,000 to promote dialogues on your campus about race, about sexual orientation, about all these things.
But for Ford, you know, the answers are already clear. I mean, you know, the problem with race is that, you know you know, minorities are oppressed, and they’re still oppressed to this day, and they’re still suffering from the legacies of slavery. You know, sexual orientations are all good; it’s just a matter of choice. I mean, it’s they’re not dialogues; they’re just, you know, sort of one-sided propaganda campaigns.
LAMB: Where do you come from on the political scale?
RILEY: On the right.
LAMB: How did you get there?
RILEY: I came by it honestly. I mean, I think my parents would both qualify themselves as conservatives. Although, you know, I mean, I think that I’ve thought about it enough, too. I mean, I used to work for ”The Wall Street Journal” Editorial Page. And I largely agree with that sort of philosophy on free markets, you know, economically. But I’m also something of a social conservative, too.
LAMB: Your father teaches at Holy Cross.
LAMB: How does a conservative I mean, the implication is that there aren’t conservatives in academia.
RILEY: There are not. It’s you know, one of the one of the things that people like to like to say about tenure and I’ve interviewed a lot of conservatives who defended tenure. Because they said look, I would lose my job tomorrow if I didn’t have tenure. But the idea that tenure has really protected dissent on campus is one that I think we have had enough experience with to examine a little bit more carefully.
You know, just to give you an example you know, when Barack Obama was running in the last election, American professors gave eight times as much money to him as to John McCain. Now, obviously, John McCain lost, but it wasn’t quite by that margin.
You know, but it’s not just politically that dissent is not protected. I mean, I talked to people who were familiar with arguments in physics departments. And they said look, if you come out with the wrong view of string theory, I mean, you will also be sort of pushed out. It’s not an environment that tolerates dissent of any sort very well.
There was a story recently about a professor at Ohio University who actually got tenure. He was he had been a journalist before. And he got tenure. And then he wrote a piece for the ”Chronicle” about how he had resolved to act from now on, now that he has tenure. And basically, he just said oh, I just I’m done. I’m not going to rock the boat anymore, I’m not going to stand up anymore. You know, it was just it was like someone who had been beaten down.
And I think, you know, that process we were talking about, that seven- to ten year process, where you’re with these people, you know, every day and you’re trying so hard to please them, because you want that job for life I think what it just promotes is an atmosphere in which everyone keeps their head down and their mouth shut.
LAMB: Have you ever run into anybody who’s conservative in a college atmosphere, and who keeps their head down on their politics until they get tenure?
RILEY: You know, I guess I sort of hear these stories apocryphally. You know, this was sort of the famous line of my former professor, Harvey Mansfield, who sort of jokingly advises people who ask his advice to first get tenure and then hoist the Jolly Roger.
LAMB: By the way, not to interrupt he sat right there one day and said he was only one of six professors in Harvard.
RILEY: Who was a conservative?
LAMB: Who was a conservative.
RILEY: I ...
LAMB: I’m sorry, yes, who was conservative.
RILEY: Let’s see, I’d probably come to a similar tally. So, yes, I mean, I think but it is a rare person, I think, who can control themselves for that long, and then suddenly, at the age of 40 basically, wake up and start speaking their mind. I mean, it’s if you can do it, if you can kind of sneak under the radar for that long, fool people into thinking, you know, this is you know, this is somebody who’ll really get along well with, you know, the liberal atmosphere at the university; and then all the sudden wake up and say aha, I have tenure, now I’m going to out myself to everyone you know, good for you. But I don’t know how many of us can a) sort of keep it to ourselves for that long; or b) once we have, you know, really want to offend all the people that we’d befriended.
LAMB: I know that’s not the subject of the book, but you went to Harvard, and you’re a conservative, and there aren’t many conservatives teaching at Harvard. But they didn’t change your mind.
RILEY: No. I mean, look, I I mean, Harvey was talking about political conservatives. I took a number of apolitical classes at Harvard. Like I said, first of all, I was a major in English and government. So, you know, I took government classes with Harvey Mansfield, with Peter Berkowitz, and with a number of a couple of other, you know, professors who I think would classify themselves as conservative.
But what I really liked about the professors that I had was that they left politics at the door. I mean, I took a I took classes on Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Plato. And even Harvey Mansfield, who is a well-known conservative outside of the classroom we didn’t sit around discussing Republican talking points, or something like that. In fact, I remember, he you know, his last sort of popular book was on manliness. And I took a graduate seminar with him, I think it was my senior year.
And a number of kind of let’s just call them radical feminists showed up. I think they wanted to really kind of disrupt the class and you know, and get their views heard, and protest, you know, the idea that we would even have such a class. And, you know, Harvey Mansfield sits down. He’s a very sort of mild-mannered guy. And he just sort of starts talking about Plato and courage. And I think these women were just sort of like well, where we go from here, you know? I think we were going to talk about Gloria Steinem, or I thought we were going to talk about, you know, some sexist pigs that we could start harassing. And I think the my point is that, you know, so many of the professors that I had, what I I appreciated the fact that their politics were not part of the curriculum.
LAMB: You say that in 1994 that there was they could not restrict the age at which you had to retire. I mean, we used to have to retire in this country at 65.
LAMB: It was originally passed back in the 80s in but schools got till, what, ’94, when the ...
LAMB: And what has that done to the universities?
RILEY: Well, it’s exacerbated the tenure problem. In fact, many people who say to me oh, why get rid of tenure? Why not just reinstitute mandatory retirement? You know, what you have on campus now is a lot of aging baby boomer professors who are not really doing their job very well. And they’re just kind of waiting until their 401(k) gets big enough that they feel comfortable retiring. And every time the market takes a hit, they’re like oh, just one more year, I’ll stick it out.
So it’s a it’s a problem. And I certainly see how mandatory retirement could solve that, in some sense. But I’m very reluctant to go that way. I mean, I had some great professors who were 70 years old. I mean, I think I shouldn’t say, but certainly, Harvey Mansfield is well over 70 now. And many of my professors that I had at the time were certainly well over 65. They had great experience teaching, and they happened to be good teachers after that. So why should we arbitrarily kick them out, just because some people at that age decide that they’re not going to do their job anymore?
LAMB: If I had tenure at a school, does it really mean that they couldn’t fire me?
RILEY: It’s technically not supposed to mean that. But I have to say, I have talked to so many administrators who have just said it is it is almost never worth it to fight that battle. I mean, we mentioned Ward Churchill a minute ago. When I started this book, I kind of resolved OK, I’m not going to mention Ward Churchill on every page. He’s kind of an outlier, you know, and people are sick of him. And by the time the book comes out, he’ll be old news. The week the book was published, the Colorado State Supreme Court decided to hear his case. This is a man who six years, I think, after he was fired is still fighting this battle.
So you’re you know, you’re the president of Colorado University, Hank Brown who, by the way, has since stepped down. I mean, Hank Brown must wake up every morning and think oh, God, this man is he will not give up. I mean, it costs universities so much money to get rid of these people. And even when they have a great case, you know, Ward Churchill you know, plagiarism, shoddy scholarship I mean, there was so much wrong. But yet, it will continue going through the courts.
So, you know, to me, the lesson that I’ve gotten if you if you look at the ”Chronicle of Higher Education” or ”Inside Higher Ed” one of these, you know, industry newsletters they periodically run advice about how administrators can kind of gently push these people out. And one of them I was sort of shocked to read was how an administrator can say to a professor for whom it’s time to go well, you could still teach one class, OK?
So one guy wrote in saying that they had tried this at his school, but you know, so they had hired a new, young professor, dynamic professor, to take the place of this aging professor that everybody agreed was incompetent. And then they had this fight over who was going to teach this one class. Because the professor well, you promised I could stay. And so the compromise was they would each teach a section of the class. The article, by the way, was called, ”You’ll Pry This Course From My Cold, Dead Hands.”
And so they have this fight over, you know, who is going to teach the class. They each decide they’re going to teach half of it. And there’s no mention in this article about how the fact that now half the students taking this class are going to get someone who’s utterly incompetent.
I mean, it’s to me, it demonstrated that tenure was just it has nothing to do with the students. I mean, the teaching is the last thing on these administrators’ and faculty’s mind.
LAMB: Define the difference a state school versus a private school. What’s different if you go to one or the other?
RILEY: As a student, or as a ...
LAMB: Yes, I mean, what are what are some of the overall differences about unions and tenure and costs?
RILEY: Right. So the tenure system is not much different. You know, people go back and forth, you know, between public and private universities. And they largely have the same system it’s still the seven years. There are sort of there’s some different rules about what is protected speech, and different kinds of senses of academic freedom. Because with the public schools, the courts are more involved because it is taxpayer-funded.
So the tenure system is not much different. Unions are certainly somewhat different. But so what happened was, in 1990, I think, there was a ruling by the Supreme Court that said if private universities did not want to recognize faculty unions, they did not have to. The ruling was a was called NLRB versus Yeshiva University. And what it said was that faculty are like management. And so they cannot be they need not be recognized as a union.
Public university campuses unionization on public university campuses is one of the fastest-growing areas of organized labor right now in the country. You have a situation where the unions have recognized that obviously the manufacturing base is shrinking, and the private union base is shrinking. So public sector white-collar jobs are where the growth is going to happen.
So you saw, actually, some of this. I think people were a little bit surprised, during the fight about Wisconsin a few months ago, to hear that there actually were unions of professors at the University of Wisconsin. I mean, unions are generally something we think of as, you know, for people who are, you know, in jobs where they can really be exploited, where maybe they’re not as you know, people are not as educated. And yet, it’s really growing in higher education.
So that’s one big difference. And I think you’re seeing, you know, the effects of that. I mean, unions at the bargaining table will mean, you know, less distinctions in terms of merit pay. You know, it will you know, pay will be based more on, you know, your level of seniority. And a lot of professors and administrators I talk to will say that, you know, unions have been a force for mediocrity on public university campuses.
LAMB: So I go to I guess I have to have a Ph.D. if I’m going to get a tenure.
LAMB: Which takes me how many years?
RILEY: Well, that’s lengthening, too. You know, it used to be five, six, seven years. Now the median time to, say, a Ph.D. in English is 11 years.
LAMB: You mean, 11 years for just the Ph.D. time? Well, what do you do teach while you’re going through that at the school?
RILEY: You do. But that’s not it’s not because you’re working on your Ph.,D. part time that it that it takes eleven years. In fact, Louis Menand had a piece in ”Harvard Magazine” a few months ago where he specified that one of the reasons it’s taking people in the humanities so long to get their Ph.D. is this whole mandate to find some new twist on things that people have written about so many thousands of times that, you know, you’ll be you’ll finally find the topic, and then you’ll realize that somebody else, oh my gosh, has written that, you know, five years ago in some obscure journal, and you’ll have to start from scratch.
LAMB: So can you characterize how much money people make that are professors?
RILEY: Not a lot. You know, this is, you know, a full professor, you know it varies.
LAMB: Full professor means you’re at the top of your game.
RILEY: Yes. So you have tenure, and you can’t really be promoted anymore. So you’re probably by the time you’re full professor let’s say you’re late 40s, maybe. And you you know, you could be making depending on the university, depending on the area $60,000, $70,000, $80,000.
I mean, the salaries of professors don’t outrage me. I don’t I don’t think that that’s the problem.
LAMB: That’s really not why I asked.
RILEY: Yes. Oh, go ahead.
LAMB: Because I wanted to go on.
LAMB: And they have tenure, and they’re full professors ...
LAMB: ... and they make, let’s just ...
RILEY: Yes. OK.
LAMB: ... pick it $70,000.
LAMB: How much actual teaching do they have to do?
RILEY: Well, let’s start with our the public research universities.
LAMB: You’ve got tenure now, you don’t have to ...
LAMB: You’re not on the you’re home free.
RILEY: OK. So you so you have tenure now. And at a research university, you could be teaching, you know, probably at little as two classes a semester.
LAMB: Three hours a week, each?
RILEY: Yes, yes. Pretty much.
LAMB: Six hours in the classroom a week?
RILEY: Yes. So you what happens at a research university is the assumption is that you will be spending approximately half of your time doing research. So, you know, if you ask a state legislator, for instance, you know oh, how much are you subsidizing research at your state university? And they’ll say well, it’s not that much, and a lot of the money’s coming the (ph) federal government. The answer is a lot. Because you are paying people a full salary to only be teaching half the time.
LAMB: Do you by chance know who gets the most amount of money of all the universities for research?
RILEY: Of all the universities for oh, you mean federal grants?
LAMB: From the federal grants?
RILEY: No, I don’t. There are about 100 universities in America that make up something called the are part of a club called the American Association of Universities. And the only way you get into that very prestigious club is by having is by getting a lot of federal grant money. And there was actually, just a couple of schools, actually recently, got kicked out of it. Well, Syracuse decided it was about to get kicked out, so they left voluntarily. And I think the university of Nebraska actually just left, too.
What was interesting to me about the Syracuse case was that they were actually getting some private money for some of the research they were doing. But that doesn’t count for the AAU. You have to be getting federal money. So the prestige is all wrapped up in this must be, you know, public government funds. So at a time when we are trying to figure out how to cut back, and how to reduce the cost of higher education, they’re thinking how can we get more out of the federal dollars?
LAMB: Can they make money outside the classroom, outside the university, when they’re tenured professors making $70,000 a year and teaching two classes a semester?
RILEY: Sure. Sure.
LAMB: How much of their time in other words, who holds them accountable for research?
RILEY: You mean, could they be making money doing research like for a private company?
LAMB: Well, in other words, if you’re again, I’m ...
LAMB: ... I been at the school for 15 years, I’ve got a full professorship, I’m teaching my two classes.
LAMB: But I really find myself capable of making lots of money over here.
LAMB: And I don’t want to do research for the school.
LAMB: Can you just blow the school off?
RILEY: It would be it would be hard to just blow the school off. I mean, usually what happens with research with, you know, real research grants is that the application has to come from a university. So you’re applying as part of a university program. It’s hard for one single professor to just go off on his own and say I want to get research from the National Science funding from the National Science Foundation by myself.
But it would be a different story, for instance, if you have like a drug company. And this is where some of the controversy has happened recently, where you have professors who have, you know, kind of reached their own private agreement, either with biotech companies or drug companies, where they’re making money. And it’s possible that their research is actually, in some ways, coming into conflict with their job. Because the private companies obviously have particular ideas about, you know, the domain that they’re in and the and who owns this information. Whereas the university again, this comes back a little bit to the transparency question university is supposed to be this free exchange of ideas. And everything is out in the open, and we’re all supposed to be able to, you know, understand what’s going on in these labs.
So a professor you know, there was actually recently a story about think it was in ”The Wall Street Journal” about a student who had turned in a paper maybe it had to do with biotech or computer coding, or something like that. And the student was actually working for a company and felt like he couldn’t complete this assignment without, you know, somehow violating his contract with this outside company.
So there’s a lot of, I think, conflicts of interest that are going on.
LAMB: What’s an adjunct professor?
RILEY: So an adjunct professor is, by very definition, a temporary position. Now, there are adjuncts who could be teaching for 25 years in the same place. But their contract renewals generally happen on a year-to-year, or even a semester-to-semester basis. They don’t get tenure, and they are not on the tenure track. So they will never ...
LAMB: And they ...
RILEY: ... come up for tenure.
LAMB: And they don’t have to have a Ph.D., I assume.
RILEY: They don’t have to have a Ph.D., no. Many of them do. And so what happens is that adjuncts actually do the bulk of the teaching. Because the ...
LAMB: In all the schools?
RILEY: In not in all the schools, but in large universities, where you have senior tenured professors who kind of opt out of life in the classroom after a certain point, except for maybe graduate seminars, or perhaps upper-level undergraduate seminars.
And so the adjuncts are basically sort of brought in to kind of teach, you know, political science 101 ...
LAMB: Pay? How much are they paid?
RILEY: Very little. I mean, in some cases, you know, significantly less than minimum wage. Their working conditions are there was a film that I watched when I was doing research that actually compared them to migrant workers. And I have to say I thought the comparison might’ve gone a little bit far. But it’s pretty disturbing. I mean, they come find out, the week before the semester begins, whether they have a job at all, they get paid next to nothing ...
LAMB: Yes, but give me an idea what they get paid.
RILEY: So there was a professor that I talked to at Cal State Fullerton, who I think was getting paid maybe $1,000 a month, or $1,200 a month.
LAMB: You had one in here that was getting $549 a month.
RILEY: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Is that over a 14-week period ...
RILEY: They’re paid by the class.
LAMB: By the in other words, the class is roughly 14 weeks ...
LAMB: ... to a term.
LAMB: Three hours a week.
RILEY: Right, right.
LAMB: Was that 42 hours?
RILEY: Right. Well, so but so it’s not it’s not just the what you have to consider is not just the teaching that they’re doing, but they’re also responsible for all of the grading of papers and things like that. So there are definitely activities outside of the classroom. And one you know, one woman who I talked to just said well, you know, I could have, you know, 200 kids in a class. They’d assign me one graduate student, you know, who would be with me two or three hours a week. So what do you do with that? Do you assign you’re going to personally grade, you know, 200 papers three times a semester?
A friend of mine actually teaches at a large university in Pennsylvania. And she’s been told by her department to stop assigning papers altogether, or even exams that involve essays. Everything should just be multiple choice now.
RILEY: Because it takes too much work to because they don’t have the labor available, they say, in order to grade those papers. So just do a multiple-choice.
LAMB: So, on a percentage basis nationwide and state universities, how what’s the percent of people that are adjunct professors in a classroom?
RILEY: I think it’s about 60 percent now.
LAMB: What about in a place like Harvard? That’s private.
RILEY: It’s not a private-public thing. It has a lot to do with the size of the university, and to what extent they expect the senior people to be doing research and not teaching. So I’m not sure what the percentage is at Harvard.
LAMB: What does your dad teach?
RILEY: Political science.
LAMB: How many courses a year does he teach?
RILEY: I think he teaches six courses a year three in the fall, three in the spring.
LAMB: And why is it at Holy Cross, which is a Jesuit school why does he get three, and if he was at Harvard he might only have one?
RILEY: Oh, because it’s Harvard is a research university.
LAMB: And Holy Cross is not?
RILEY: Right. Holy Cross is considered a liberal arts college. It’s a it’s considered a teaching college.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier that you were at ”The Wall Street Journal” Editorial Page. When did you work there?
RILEY: I left about a year and a half ago, and I worked there for about five years.
LAMB: What did you do?
RILEY: I edited culture columns and religion columns. And I wrote about higher education.
LAMB: How did you get that job?
RILEY: Let’s see. Well, I worked at other magazines. I think I worked at ”Commentary Magazine.” I interned at ”The Journal,” actually, right out of college. And I wrote another book prior to joining ”The Journal,” which was about religious colleges in America, called ”God on the Quad.”
LAMB: And why did you do that?
RILEY: Why did I write about ...
LAMB: Where did you get the interest in ”God on the Quad?”
RILEY: Well, I had visited two schools that had just opened up. One was called Ave Maria Law School, and one was called Patrick Henry. And I wrote a piece in a magazine about the two of them and wanted to look into why these schools were growing so rapidly.
LAMB: Patrick Henry’s right down here in Virginia.
LAMB: where’s Ave Maria? Is that the one in Florida?
RILEY: Well, just it moved to Florida a couple of years ago. When I visited, it was in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
LAMB: What did you find out about those two schools that you found most interesting?
RILEY: They were attracting some extremely smart kids, even though at the time neither one of them was accredited yet. And they were attracting kids who did not want to kind of just stay in a religious kind of ghetto, but really kind of bring their ideas to bear in a world of public policy or law, or any number of other fields.
LAMB: And ”Commentary” how long were you there?
RILEY: Two years.
LAMB: That’s Norman Podhoretz and now his son, John Podhoretz’s publication?
RILEY: Yes, yes.
LAMB: What did you take away from that experience?
RILEY: Well, I was in charge of editing the letters there, which I don’t know how familiar you are with ”Commentary.” It was sort of an extensive letters section. And, you know, I kind of became familiar with the intricacies of a lot of debates about, you know, foreign policy and domestic politics. And I also, you know, kind of became more familiar with the way a magazine works, and how it actually gets produced.
LAMB: Going back to this book, ”The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For” who thought of that title?
RILEY: That was me.
LAMB: But where did you get the interest in this? Where did that start? Was it at ”The Journal” when you started? And what triggered the idea that you said that Ivan R. Dee will probably publish this book?
RILEY: Well, I mean, I tried to sell it to other publishers, too, but Ivan R. Dee bought it.
LAMB: When did you start that process?
RILEY: It was about three years ago. But, you know, look, I’ve been covering higher education for a long time. And I think, you know, what was the driving force behind this book was, again, this sense that I had this advantage that other people did not. I kind of understood what was going on behind the scenes in higher education, both because of my background, you know, in terms of my own family; but also just because of all the reporting that I had done on higher education.
And, you know, what happens when a student walks onto campus today there’s a you know, you’re an 18-year-old, you walk onto a college campus, and someone hands you a guide this thick, and then says yes, pick anything. See what you like. And, you know, administrators kind of tout it as this like choose-your-own-adventure game. And it’s not.
I mean, 18-year-olds the bottom line is 18-year-olds don’t know what they don’t know. And to me, pretending that, you know, they’re going to be able to craft for themselves a brilliant education, when often many of our general education requirements have been dropped, the core curriculum has dropped.
You know, people like to talk about how they think that, you know, people who are wrapped up in the idea of the core curriculum just want the great books of Western civilization, and it’s their attachment to Western civilization, and that’s why they I want a core curriculum because I think people need some basic foundations.
The education that an 18-year-old will craft for himself is completely haphazard. You will have animal behavior for an hour on Monday, introduction to psychology on Tuesday, you know, French literature from 1800 to 1850 on Wednesday. And at the end of four years of this, can you really say what this broad education you were supposed to have what that turned into?
And this you know, professors are doing this, too. Because professors want to spend their time researching their own little narrow subject, they would also be perfectly happy to teach a class in their own little narrow subject. And no one is saying to them no, no, no, no, no. You may prefer to teach a tiny seminar on an obscure topic, but what these kids really need is a broad introduction to your subject.
LAMB: You say there are no jobs for tenured professors out there. But you say your sister has a Ph.D.?
RILEY: She does.
LAMB: Is she teaching?
LAMB: Where is she teaching?
RILEY: She teaches at a place called New England Conservatory, where they do not offer tenure.
LAMB: Did she do that on purpose?
RILEY: No. I don’t think so. I think she would’ve been perfectly happy to accept a tenured position.
LAMB: So, you also write, for just the reason that Larson elucidates, ”Higher education is so broken right now that it’s time to change the pitching mound and the distance to the bases ...” Are you a baseball fan?
RILEY: A little bit.
LAMB: ”... not to mention the strike zone and the number of players on each team.”
It’s so broken? How come why are all these schools’ lists to get in much bigger than the spots in there to get them, to bring the students in?
RILEY: Well, you know, there are there are a couple of ways in which people, you know, try to measure the quality of higher education. One is they say, you know look, we’re the envy of the world, people come here for our colleges and universities. And to that, I say well, first of all, you know, you’re talking about a very small percentage of kids. You’re talking about, generally, graduate students who are coming here for our, you know, hard science classes. So it’s not all of American higher education that is the envy of the world.
But the second thing that I think that people seem to forget is that higher education kind of has a monopoly at this point. Colleges have monopoly on credentialing. Mean, people want to get into college. Because college right now is the ticket to the middle class. And I don’t begrudge people that. I don’t say well, you know, you should just you know, you should find another way. Because right now, we don’t really have much in the way of another way. We don’t really have a lot of apprenticeships. And college has become kind of the catch-all for every different kind of career you want to pursue.
But to me, I think we could do better. I mean, there is a there was a story a few weeks ago, maybe a couple months ago, about the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, who offered kids, I think, $100,000 if they would drop out of college and come work in Silicon Valley or, you know, create their own kind of startup instead. And, you know, a lot of these kids kind of already had credentials, in the sense that, you know, they were already working for IBM at the age of 13, or something like that. So they weren’t going to have trouble getting a job.
But what Thiel’s point, I think, that he was trying to make, was that, you know, there is a price for this. And, you know, you could spend four years and this amount of money on something. But you better understand what the value of it is. And for some people, it doesn’t have much value. For some people, you know, you can you can get a job out there without it.
But the other question is can’t employers find a way of measuring, you know, someone’s qualifications for a job without just using the college degree? And I think we need to think more creatively about that.
LAMB: Who have you listened to, in your professional life, that talks the best about tenure, who’s the most convincing?
RILEY: Who’s the most convincing ...
LAMB: That it’s the thing to do, it’s right?
RILEY: Let’s see. That’s an interesting question. You know, I guess there are a number of conservative professors I’ve talked to about it. I mean, look, there’s John Silber, for instance I don’t think he is in favor of getting rid of tenure. But I think he thinks it’s in need of serious reform ...
LAMB: He was the president of Boston University.
LAMB: President emeritus ...
LAMB: ... 85 years old.
RILEY: Yes, yes. And no, I think he’s he has very strong opinions about the reform of higher education but thinks that we do need to keep tenure.
And look, you know, I think tenure has protected some very smart people who have said some dissenting things that needed to be said. And, you know, I understand that my argument sort of throws them under a bus.
I interviewed Checker Finn about this. He’s a former Assistant Secretary of Education who now works on education reform issues. And he sort of summed up, you know, what I sort of eventually took as my position, which was, you know, saving the jobs of 400 conservatives is not worth savings the jobs of 400,000 liberals. You know, he said the situation is so completely unbalanced now that the idea that we’re just going to keep this system because of the few conservative professors are out there just seemed silly to him.
LAMB: What’s the Cherry Award?
RILEY: The Cherry Award is a teaching award. And I think you get maybe $200,000 for being basically the best professor in America.
So a couple of years ago, when I was at ”The Journal,” I did a story about the three finalists. It’s given out by Baylor University. And you can nominate students can nominate you, other professors can nominate you. And you basically there’s a there’s a committee that eventually sort of judges the finalists and decides, you know, who will win who will win this award, based on their ability to convey information to students.
LAMB: By the way, not again, sorry to interrupt but Ken Starr is the President of Baylor University now.
LAMB: And it’s Waco, Texas ...
LAMB: ... in case people didn’t know where it is.
LAMB: And you wrote about the three that were the ...
RILEY: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: ... contestants. Roger Rosenblatt, who people would know ...
LAMB: ... from public television.
LAMB: And two other gentlemen.
LAMB: Do you remember their names? I’ll try to find them. Oh, Mr. Berger, believe Edward Burger.
RILEY: Edward Burger, at Williams. He was actually the eventual winner.
LAMB: And Elliott West.
RILEY: Yes, at the University of Arkansas. So I actually went to see Burger and West in person. And they’re two very different kind of styles of teaching. West is, you know, not he’s not dry, but, you know, he just he sort of is telling a story. And he’s been telling this story about American history for many years. There’s weren’t a lot of fireworks or shenanigans going on in his classroom.
But I was sitting in the audience of 200 people. And you know, the only the only visual aids he was putting up sort of some slides of you know, of historical photos. Everyone was just sitting there and listening to him, utterly rapt, because he kind of knew how to tell a story. And there was a lot of information being conveyed. And he wasn’t, you know, reading off of notes and just sort of staring down like this. I mean, he really was engaging with the audience, trying to see are people awake, are you listening to me?
And Burger was sort of much more dynamic kind of, you know, doing a little more jumping around. But again, you know, there weren’t a lot of fireworks. And you know, and he really he did a speech at Parents Weekend at Williams. So it was parents and students. But, you know, he’s a math teacher.
Now, you know and this sort of struck me. Because I was like the best professor in America is a math professor. I mean, you have to not only sort of convey these ideas, but you really have to engage people who you know, lots of people just have to take his class because it’s a requirement. You know, he’s teaching kids who are not necessarily interesting in the subject, and he’s making them interested.
LAMB: Let me ask about you said the best teacher in America according to ...
RILEY: According to the Cherry Award, yes.
LAMB: Who judges the Cherry Award?
RILEY: They’re judged by other faculty, and I think they bring in some people from outside the university, too.
LAMB: At Baylor?
RILEY: Yes. But what ...
LAMB: And the winner gets $200,000?
RILEY: And a semester in Waco, too. Yes. They have to come to Baylor to teach for a semester, too.
But the reason that I highlighted this was that when people are talking about why we judge professors by their publications and not by teaching, the first response is well, you can’t really measure teaching. Teaching is just it’s all subjective, you know. You know good teaching when you see it.
I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s a total copout. I mean, these are these are professors who you know, there are ways of measuring. You know, everything, from the lecture style to grading mean, when someone gives you back a paper, does it just have a ”great job,” exclamation point at the end? Or is it all marked up? I mean, are your grammatical mistakes corrected? Is there a sense that the professor has really engaged in this process with you? Or are they just going through the motions?
LAMB: How old are your kids?
RILEY: Two and four.