A Letter From Dr. Chips

My article on Wal-Mart University led to a mailbox full of cheers. The letters came from a few professors but mostly from former students who had been taken to the cleaners financially by the overpriced cartel known as higher education.

I received only one critical letter. The author was outraged.

Dear Mr. North,

I am a history professor at [Name] University. I have a graduate assistant who does read over term papers, exams, and book reviews, but my assistant does not put a grade on any of these papers. I grade them all myself. Sorry to inform you but it takes longer than 15 minutes to grade any of my exams, term papers, or book reviews. I might not be as efficient as Walmart at this, but I assure you I am quite thorough. I think that if they take the time to give me there best work, I should return the favor.

At this point, I smelled a rat. First, a professor of a lower-division class has more than one graduate assistant. He is lecturing to 200 to 300 students in a room. He needs several grad students. Or else he is lecturing to 20 students in two or three small classes, and he gets no grad student. There are no grad students in upper division, unless the soft life is even softer than I recall.

Second, under no stretch of the imagination does it a take 15 minutes for a Ph.D.-holding professor of history to read a student term paper. I spent 15 minutes as a grad student 40 years ago. Only if the paper is over 10 pages would it take 15 minutes. A term paper today over 10 pages long? Give me a break!

Then I noticed that the sender had an AOL address. It should have had an address ending in .edu.

The letter got even more bizarre.

I also do not use multiple choice, true-false, or matching exams. All of my exams are essay, short answer, and identification questions. My students have two regular exams, two book exams, one book review, and a term paper. I promise you they would love the Walmart U program that you have outlined, but as long as I am the professor I refuse to follow the Walmart U program.

This was something out of the 1960’s in upper division. Let’s think about this. Two midterms exams: 10 minutes each. One book review: 10 minutes. A term paper: 15 minutes, max. We are up to about 50 minutes per student, times (say) 40 to 50 students per term. That is almost 40 whole hours per semester! How can anyone bear a crushing load like this?

My graduate assistant does not give more than two lectures per semester. There are occasions when I will not be present for one of the lectures, but that is rare. I am usually present for both.

The agony! Why, that is 40 lectures a term, minus two, times (at most) 45 minutes — the same lectures he gave a year ago, two years ago, ten years ago. That is a staggering 28.5 hours of lecturing. Added to the 40 hours of reading exams and papers, we are talking about 70 hours per term — for a paltry $25,000 or so. If he is a full professor, he gets $40,000 to $50,000 per term.

He thinks he has overwhelmed me with his dedication. He hasn’t. Not yet.

I have even taught at a community college and I followed the same course requirements. I basically formulated my course requirements from professors that I had in my college career. I feel like I owe it to them to maintain the same high standards. I realize that some of my students do not appreciate my old-school standards, but they have the option to drop or fail my class. They can do the work or party on their parents dime. The choice is theirs to make.

This is excellent! He is an old-school man in a new-school era.

There is not a college administrator, student, parent, or free market guru that will ever get me to alter my approach. I have never taught an online class and I never will. If you do not have time to come to class, then I suggest you go to a diploma mill. I do not mean to sound completely hard-hearted, because I do make sure I am available to my students, or perhaps I should say I make myself available to my students who care enough to accept the challenge and try.

This is inspirational! Why, it’s like it is 1950 all over again. It’s the Halls of Ivy! It’s Ronald Colman! Or maybe it’s Dr. Chips. Here is a grand old man of the grand old school.

Now with all that said, I resent your disparaging remarks about my colleagues and myself. I have had professors that could care less, but they were few and far between. The professors that I admired, and this was the vast majority, were the ones that challenged me to do my best. Walmart could not on its best day do my job. I am sure they could find someway, as you have alluded to, be a diploma mill like numerous other online universities. I am sure that would fit right in with some free market theory and would work out quite well in Lala Land.

And where were these professors he so admired? I looked up the man’s name. I searched on Google. He was listed as having been a grad student at [Name] University in the 1990s.

That’s odd. He claims to be a professor at [Name] University. Except for Harvard, universities make it a rule not to hire people to whom they have granted a Ph.D. To do so is considered incestuous. Harvard breaks the rule because Harvard regards itself as above the rule. So, I called the history department of [Name]. The secretary said there is no such person on the faculty. She did recall a grad student by that name years ago.

I think what we have here is a letter from a former grad student who is actually selling life insurance. He remembers his grad school days fondly. He is still dreaming of what it would be like to be Dr. Chips. He knows how he would do things, if he were ever given the opportunity.

Oh, well. It sounded great. If there really were someone like this, teaching a backbreaking 70 hours per semester for $35,000, it would be a miracle.

Best of Luck and God help us all if Walmart gets into education. I assure you the world will be heading even faster to hades.

If you think Wal-Mart University, or Google University, could not put half of the modern universities out of business in ten years or fewer, you do not know the nature of the competition they face.

August 7, 2008

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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