The Entitlement Mentality in Academia

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Brian Leiter
is incensed.

Mr. Leiter
– famous primarily for his website containing comparative rankings
of philosophy programs, as well as his blog, which covers job-related
news in academic philosophy – has recently learned that King’s
College, London (KCL) is facing budget problems and must cut back
on staff. In order to assess the extent of layoffs, the school will
require every faculty member to interview for their current position.
Leiter has kept his readers updated on the situation through his
blog
, and linked to The
Times Higher Education’s
coverage of the event – which,
in an article titled "’Draconian’ measure: King’s to cut 205
jobs," emphasizes how the cutbacks will affect the humanities
and focuses on the reaction this has set off among academics:

A proposal
on "restructuring" in the School of Arts and Humanities,
where 22 jobs are at risk, tells staff that "all academic
roles … will be declared at risk of redundancy."

Selection
of the redundancies "will be done through an assessment based
on the performance of each role holder," it adds.

A group of
26 academics from nearby University College London have written
to the head of the school, Jan Palmowski, warning that such a
"savage reduction of staff numbers" would mean that
the best candidates in the humanities will "shun the institution."

Only in academia
– or in government – could the reduction of just over
two hundred jobs from among thousands (and in this economic climate!)
be considered "draconian" and "savage" in an
unqualified sense. The reaction of these academics betrays the degree
to which an entitlement mentality has permeated institutions of
higher education.

"Draconian
Measures" and the Entitlement Mentality

No one enjoys
it when resources are mismanaged, time and money are wasted, and
an organization must face tough decisions on how to clean up after
its past mistakes. Sometimes these corrections include firing staff
members, some of whom may have been hard-working and dedicated employees.
However, while personnel changes caused by financial problems are
often tragic, the alternatives – pretending that no such problems
exist, for example – are much worse.

Unsustainable
activities cannot continue forever, for the simple reason that they
are wasteful by definition and must eventually either collapse or
become a drag on the rest of society (e.g., through tax- or inflation-funded
transfers of wealth). Those companies and institutions not on the
public dole do not have the second option: profit and loss mechanisms
ensure that all organizations which weigh down the rest of society
are dissolved, reformed, sold to more capable owners, reorganized,
etc.

However, this
is not the case with universities and colleges, most of which are
entirely state owned and the majority of which receive sizeable
benefits supplied by the public. Administrators at these institutions
enjoy the privilege of negotiating political solutions for their
financial problems, which amounts to bypassing the need to please
consumers first and foremost. Yet this comes at a cost: if you earn
your living not by voluntary exchange but through entitlement, it
is impossible to run an organization on sound financial principles.

During the
good times, few notice the tension between economic reality and
university policy. There is enough money to go around, and schools
routinely enlarge their scope of activity by hiring promising young
scholars and expanding the number of programs they offer. But when
recessions hit and everyone is forced to rein in his spending, academics
desire to retain their right not to be affected by the rest of the
world’s concerns. They ride the boom but refuse to feel the bust.

Leiter on
KCL: A Moral Argument

Even the reorganization
of one school such as KCL – in this case, the reduction of
a small percentage of its faculty – can send academics across
the world into a fury. Brian Leiter comments
on the situation:

KCL Philosophy
is a remarkably consistent unit in terms of strength, so it is
an insult that any member of staff should have to re-apply
for his or her job. Indeed, we can go much further: it is an insult
and an outrage that any professional hired with an expectation
of permanent employment absent gross dereliction of duties should
have to re-apply for his or her job.

Terms like
"insult" and "outrage" imply that the morality
of a matter is clear and needs little or no explanation. Yet it
is not apparent why KCL’s reorganization is such a case.

Granted, KCL
has broken promises it made to its professors, who were "hired
with an expectation of permanent employment." However, there
are many situations in which breaking a promise – while undesirable
– is nevertheless necessary in order to avoid an even worse
state of affairs. When an institution makes grand promises of a
prosperous future, it should be obvious that the fulfillment of
such claims is simply not within its control. Who is KCL to decide
that it will remain prosperous regardless of a change in the economic
climate?

It’s not outrageous
to fall short of a promise you never should have made; on the contrary,
to make questionable commitments is unwise and blameworthy in itself.
Consider an industry that has experienced its own crisis in recent
years: real-estate–management firms boasted record high profits
in 2005, with promises of ever-greater expansion in the future.
During 2007 I worked in a massive, new complex with offices, retail
space, and residential areas that had been planned at the height
of real-estate mania. It was built on the expectation of steady
increases in real-estate prices, but to this day only a fraction
of its condos and offices have been sold or leased. The project
remains a massive failure.

The firm that
executed the project, their investors, their clients, and their
employees were all deceived: in reality, the real-estate boom was
a sham, and the project, which seemed like a sure bet, never had
a chance. And so the consequences for their foolishness had to be
met. Promises could not be kept; painful cutbacks and reorganization
were needed to survive. Many were disappointed.

Strangely enough,
I have never seen any outraged letters to the editor about asset
managers losing their jobs. Everyone recognizes that there was simply
too much real-estate–related activity at the time, pushing
too many, often ill-conceived projects. Most also realize that to
continue the illusion can only delay the recovery and readjustment
to normality. If there are too many workers in real estate, some
of them need to find productive work in other fields.

The same principles
must apply to higher education no less than they do to real estate,
whether we choose to recognize this or not. The only difference
– and the reason busts appear to go easy on universities –
lies in the political connectedness of most schools. When times
are tough, the taxpayers are expected to eat the lion’s share of
costs (since university professors after all are "hired with
an expectation of permanent employment").

Perhaps one
might object that KCL has done more than merely break a promise.
One could take the position that tenure is a contractual obligation
or close to it. On this view, revoking tenure would be like slashing
pay in violation of an express and binding agreement.

To this I would
respond that tenure is a privilege given to professors to solidify
their academic freedom – the agreement is that a professor
will not, for example, be fired one day only to be replaced by someone
else the next. Schools nevertheless are free in times of financial
difficulty to cut back on staff – including tenured professors
– or even to eliminate an entire department. The objection
we are considering takes the spirit of tenure to entail a near-contractual
promise of lifetime employment. Yet such a contract would be foolish
to the point of being untenable from the word go.

In business,
promises and contracts made in a distorted market are often broken.
While this phenomenon is unfortunate, it is often necessary. To
be sure, there remain penalties to be paid and justice to be served;
yet few would assert that the original, irrational promises and
contracts must be maintained at all costs. Why should the situation
in academia be any different?

Universities,
no less than other industries, expanded during the good years. They
undertook projects on the assumption that the money would continue
to pour in. They promised life-long, paid positions that (were the
boom revealed to be the sham it was) they were in no position to
promise. The real moral outrage in this situation is the hubris
with which academics and administrators themselves have acted –
often assuming that their budget ought to rise continually without
interruption or at most remain stable during difficult economic
times.

Leiter on
KCL: An Economic Argument

Leiter’s moral
contempt is not the only argument he advances. He also makes an
economic case against KCL’s actions:

Besides the
ugliness and cruelty of this whole business, it is clear the KCL
administrators didn’t consult any economists, for they might have
learned that this whole maneuver will end up costing KCL much
more money over the longterm. Here’s why: if academics are
not going to receive compensation in the form of job security,
they are going to have receive [sic] it in the form of money.
This effect won’t be immediate, and, of course, KCL can dodge
the consequence altogether if it decides that it doesn’t want
to compete at all in the major academic disciplines, or it decides
it doesn’t care who it appoints. But if KCL imagines it can remain
part of the Russell Group, and get RAE results more to its liking,
then it will have to appoint serious academics, and no serious
academic will go near King’s without either guarantees of job
security (which won’t be credible after this fiasco) or much higher
compensation. [emphasis original]

Leiter’s argument
relies on the idea that academics today enjoy such advantages in
their current or prospective employment that they can be picky in
deciding where to work – and also that these privileges will
continue well into the future. But is this really the case? Perhaps
for a tiny minority of those considered elite in their respective
fields of scholarship. However, ask any recent graduate with a PhD
whether jobs are easy to come by, and you will receive a much different
view on the state of finding work in academia.

Certainly,
in a world where teachers and scholars are in short supply, colleges
and universities must compete for competent workers with promises
of high pay or other benefits (such as assurances of long-term job
security). We do not, however, live in such a world: instead, recent
PhDs search long and hard to find employment, often without any
luck. In many cases they scrape together teaching "jobs"
that consist of ad hoc assignments or adjunct positions rather
than full-time, paid positions. This is especially true in the humanities,
where the supply of teachers and scholars has long overpowered demand
for them.

Leiter nevertheless
seems confident that, from an economic standpoint, KCL is making
a poor choice. Even though there are many capable-but-unemployed
scholars in the world, professional pride, he believes, will keep
worthy scholars and teachers from ever considering a teaching position
at the school – absent costly incentives.

Again, while
this may be true for a small handful of the elite in academic philosophy,
the facts on the ground contradict his theory. All over the country,
schools that advertise an open position receive hundreds of qualified
applications for a single spot. Prospective professors often accept
heavy teaching loads at low pay or accept non-tenure-track positions.
Those who have teaching jobs, whatever their circumstances, consider
themselves lucky to have them. Why should we think KCL, in this
environment, couldn’t find competent workers? (Which is worse: accepting
a job with a potentially shaky future or remaining unemployed?)

Of course,
Leiter isn’t ruling out just any academic; he has in mind specifically
the top talent in philosophy. Surely none of these will accept employment
from a struggling institution. Yet the sheer abundance of workers,
including many from top programs, eagerly seeking a job is a clear
signal that good help will not be too hard to find. These young
academics may not be well established in their field right now,
but they are looking for an opportunity to do good work. A job to
which someone of Leiter’s stature might turn up his nose could very
well be filled by a future star.

And even well-established
scholars may not require extraordinary measures from KCL to consider
employment there. KCL is experiencing a budget crisis now, but several
years down the road – thanks, perhaps, to their current restructuring
– they may be in much better financial shape than, for example,
many state schools in the United States. This would put them in
a position to make competitive offers to scholars working in struggling
institutions. By that time (as we will see below), many schools
will have since undertaken a KCL-like restructuring. It is difficult
to imagine an unorganized, pride-induced embargo lasting through
such circumstances.

Thus run Leiter’s
moral and economic arguments. It seems to me that in both cases
he is confused. But there is a deeper issue at stake here. After
all, Leiter is speaking in a manner consistent with general academic
attitudes and practices: his opinions on the matter reflect those
of most in the profession. Any time there is sustained, industry-wide
support of an intrinsically unsupportable system, there is a good
chance that interventionism is feeding ideas and practices which
otherwise could not be sustained. The determination of academics
to secure a lifetime guarantee, for all of their colleagues, on
jobs that ought not to have been created is surely evidence that
interventionism is involved.

The Bubble
Must Burst

Despite the
systemic redirection of wealth from its most productive uses to
the fantasies of academics and central planners, cracks are appearing
on the surface of higher education. The bubble is not sustainable.
Too many students attend school without good reason; too many jobs
are held by too many highly paid teachers; too many programs are
wasting money and time. Sorting out which are economically viable
and which need to be liquidated is something that only a system
of prices, established through voluntary exchange, can establish.

Even if universities
are immune from having to please consumers, their customers (students)
are not. In many cases – especially in the liberal arts, Mr.
Leiter’s field – earning a degree no longer pays off for the
average graduate, and the increasing average rate of student-loan
debt puts liberal-arts majors at a big disadvantage early in their
careers. Many with bachelor’s or even master’s degrees are taking
jobs that require no more than a high-school education. States themselves
are increasingly unable to afford the cost of their patronage of
higher learning.

At some point,
institutions will need to reckon with reality and plan their own
budgets accordingly. Along the way, private institutions that excel
in education – not to mention taxpayers – will suffer,
as state institutions continue to receive special consideration
at the public trough.

What are colleges
and universities to do? They will have to assess their current standing
and find ways of consolidating their losses, in order to ensure
that the most urgent needs of the institution are met and (if possible)
provide for the survival of the school. But they face a dilemma:
much of their payroll expenses are in the form of guaranteed jobs
for life. They have been living beyond their means for years, relying
on increasingly leveraged investments and public subsidies to keep
the party going.

Their unrealistic
promises and financial habits have put them in a bind: they must
remove the dead weight, but they cannot simply eliminate their least-valued
positions (as every other nongovernmental institution has been forced
to do by the recession). Because of the public status of most schools,
there are few market signals they can rely on to make their decision,
and whatever they decide will spark further outrage. It seems as
though everyone loses on the deal.

How Long
Can the Façade Last?

Mr. Leiter
might be right, for now: the first schools that begin to face reality
and cut back on staff will indeed face the scorn of the entirety
of academia. There is no fair way to cut back on jobs when you have
promised everyone a tenured position. Some qualified people who
have dedicated themselves to your school will lose out.

There
remains among many scholars an air of entitlement and invincibility.
Many professors believe themselves to be among the least appreciated
members of white-collar society and above "capitalist"
concerns of profit and loss. But King’s College, London and the
state schools in California
are merely the first fruits of a
collapsing system – and notably one that has made us all poorer
in the meantime. In recent weeks there have been an increasing
number
of schools
who are considering or taking KCL-like action. Because of the problems
created by the tenure system, the restructuring of these schools
is guaranteed to be much more painful than it would otherwise have
been.

The inevitable
collapse – and the moral outrage of those it hurts – will
continue for as long as the public buys into the myth that higher
education (and its professors) are too important to have to keep
their costs and production in line with consumer demand.

Reprinted from Mises.org.

March
30, 2010

Daniel
Coleman [send him mail]
is a graduate student and freelance editor who lives in Annapolis,
Maryland. Visit his website.

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