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Higher Education = Academic Freedom?

by Rebecca Chao

The domestic education debate has centered on the troubled K-12 public school system. Our students lag in math and science, and drop further and further behind other countries, like China. But higher education is in trouble, too.

Last Thursday, the World Policy Institute and Demos hosted a book launch for Higher Education? co-authored by Professor Andrew Hacker of Queens College and New York Times journalist and WPI fellow, Claudius Dreifus. The authors claim that America has put too much blame on its secondary education system and not enough on its higher education institutions, which have experienced a serious decline in quality. There are many and varied ills that plague our nation’s universities—but the root of the problem is tenure.

Increasingly, college students find themselves taught by graduate assistants and adjunct professors while tenured faculty take long sabbaticals to pursue projects that do not necessarily relate to their research or improve its quality.

While tenure is foreign to the Chinese higher education system, once on board, young professors are protected from removal unless they make an egregious error. Unlike in the U.S., this system does not create a ruling elite of tenured faculty However, according to a 2008 report issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research, there has been a shift to three-year contracts for faculty in China’s elite universities in the drive to compete internationally. But the change does not take seniority into account; regardless of their standing, professors are expected to produce on average three international publications or else lose their jobs.

In spite of the added burden of research  Professors at Chinese universities teach their students directly, do not rely on graduate assistants, and are still able to deliver competitive quantities of research. An Oct. 2005 New York Times article noted that Chinese universities are also producing scientific research in quantities comparable to that in the U.S. But critics argue it’s quality over quantity and creative thought over standardized test scores that  makes America great. 

True, China’s universities still lag behind those in the West because, and China has yet to cultivate the type of academic freedom that gives their research global clout.

But if the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom and give academics reign to take risks, then U.S. institutions aren’t doing that either. Instead,  Hacker and Dreifus argue that tenure protects academic elite that bully young professors seeking job security to conform to the status quo. The academic freedom that made American universities great is facing extinction.

But if academic freedom is not so free at our higher education institutions, what is it that allows American universities to hold such international prestige?

As much as our tenure system is flawed, it serves an economic purpose.  When joined with an Ivy League brand, it draws the best scholars from around the globe. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s abolishment of tenure in the 1980s triggered a mass exodus of British professors to seek better opportunities in the U.S. And since the U.K. doesn’t have exit visas like China, the Brits got their higher salaries, greater support for research and graduate teaching assistants to alleviate teaching burdens.

Hacker and Dreifus also pointed out that while our universities are good at attracting great thinkers from around the world, they do not deliver an undergraduate education to match. Is attracting celebrity scholars who want to hand off teaching responsibilities to their graduate assistants sound educational policy? How long can this continue before it becomes a catastrophic problem?

Furthermore, if the U.S. depends on this “brain-drain” phenomenon, bad news: it’s no longer a unique feature of American institutions.

There has been a reverse brain drain in China. The New York Times reported in Oct. 2005:

China's model is simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and overseas-born ethnic Chinese to well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest students and give them tremendous leeway.

“Maybe in 20 years, MIT will be studying Tsinghua's example,” says Rao Zihe, director of the Institute of Biophysics at Tsinghua University, an institution that is renowned for its sciences and is regarded by many as China's finest university. “How long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects we are already better than the Harvards today.”

That was five years ago.

Today: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a study earlier in September revealing that international students enrolling in U.S. higher institutions are on the decline as their home universities strengthen and American institutions get more expensive and not necessarily better. U.S. scientists, while trained at home, go where the technology is, The New York Times reported just earlier this month. For Mike Biddle, the founder of MBA Polymers and recently received the Economist magazine’s 2010 Innovation Award for energy/environment, that means the E.U. and…China.

Our nation is at risk: What do we do to reform education? Maybe Rao Zihe is right, but instead of waiting another 15 years, we should start now.

Image via Flickr, user Pink Sherbet Photography

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