Interesting essay in the Chronicle by a man who was once an assistant professor before leaving to make money in business and has now returned as a university administrator. He finds that the things that made him leave in the first place have only gotten worse in the past 30 years: university costs are soaring but none of the money is being passed on to teachers, who are increasingly adjuncts, instructors or graduate students -- fewer than 30% of university teachers are tenured these days -- and the students are taking on an average of $23,000 in debt for an education that is certainly getting no better and may be getting worse.
The thing that struck me was the impression of a vast gulf between the academic and business worlds. Many people outside the university seem to think of professors as an over-privileged, over-paid bunch of left-wing ideologues -- the liberal elite -- while professors see themselves as under-paid, over-worked and also vital to a world that needs education as much as it needs anything. Some of the commenters to this essay focused on this point, that perception of professors as the lazy enemies of middle-class American values is behind the declining support for universities at the state level. I would add that the ignorance goes both ways; many people within academia regard business as a sort of racket where the wickedly clever bilk the weak in a way that is both intellectually simple, compared to academic work, but completely beyond their comprehension.
One way to decrease this misunderstanding, it seems to me, would be to make it easier to pass back and forth between the two worlds. I am not sure how that would be done, although the expansion of teaching by part-time adjuncts certainly creates an opening for business people to teach, as I am going to do this fall. Perhaps universities could give more credit for professors who spent their summers or sabbaticals working in the corporate world -- we once hired a professor to do a major archaeological project for us during his sabbatical, and he told me that this was only possible for him because he already had tenure and his relationship with the rest of his department could get no worse. This would be difficult for professors of medieval poetry, but there are many academic fields where it might work quite well -- not only most of the sciences but anthropology, economics, sociology, and education.
I worry, as my friends know, about what I see as the growing separation of education from the rest of American life. In part this is simply the result of ever increasing professionalization and compartmentalization in all parts of our society, but I am still always looking for ways to increase communication and break down misunderstanding. More appreciation among business people and academics for what the other does might reduce the ideological noise that surrounds all debates about university funding and policy, and that might help us look for real solutions to our problems.