Public Skepticism About Higher Education

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My latest FindLaw column extends my recent discussion of public investment, focusing specifically on public investment in higher education. I attempt to make the case for spending on top-flight universities as a necessary condition for economic prosperity, and I point out that we are currently allowing the states' budget crises to gut one of the nation's most important assets (and the source of one of our biggest competitive advantages internationally). Given the importance of universities to the country, and given the perversely pro-cyclical nature of states' spending, I conclude that the federal government should fund the nations' universities to prevent their further decline. (I did not have the space to talk about the "fund nationally, manage locally" issue, but that seems the most sensible and appealing approach.)

The column relies on some unstated factual assumptions about the size of the payoff to investment in public higher education, assumptions that I intend to discuss in future columns. Here, I thought it an opportune moment to discuss why it is so difficult to sell the public on the value of higher education.

I was tempted to title this post "Why Do They Hate Us?" referring to the public's apparent disdain for academics; but that seemed likely to draw the wrong audience for this post. Nevertheless, it is perhaps not exaggerating too much to describe the public's attitude toward college professors as downright hostile.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that hiring people specifically because they are qualified for "mind work" is unnerving. It cannot help but trigger fears of inferiority -- fears that are not allayed by the arrogant attitude that too often comes with advanced degrees. It is a more general version of the sketches earlier this decade on Saturday Night Live in which Jimmy Fallon plays "your company's computer guy," answering every tech problem with rolling eyes and an order to "MOVE!" away from the computer so that he can fix what his pea-brained supplicant has broken. We might need guys like him, and we might appreciate that he does a highly competent job. But we cannot stand him.

A more specific source of public hostility to the professoriate is the belief that we do not work very much. Even liberal Democrats who claim to support higher education have gone on rants about how little work professors do. Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado, for example, made the evening news about twenty years ago during hearings on higher education when she expressed amazement and disgust that professors "only work six hours a week." This is, of course, logically equivalent to measuring a member of Congress's working hours by how long it takes to vote on various bills, but no matter. The idea is apparently fixed in the public's mind that a professor's life is simply a matter of giving lectures from yellowed notes and then retiring to the faculty lounge to drink sherry and feel superior to others.

Surprisingly, this misunderstanding about what professors do is shared even by people whom we might expect to have a more nuanced view. A public school teacher once asked me to explain what I did other than teach my classes. One item on my list was reviewing textbooks for possible use in my courses. She objected that this does not do anything for my students in the semester that I actually read the books for possible future use. No matter how much I tried to explain that this was actually work, and that it had to count at some point on the ledger of "what professors do," she was unmoved. She, after all, "worked" 35 hours a week and had to grade papers for her current students as well. What was my complaint?

I thus would despair of ever explaining the value of "service" work for the university or profession. For example, this is one of the crunch weeks for me in organizing scholarly panels at the Law & Society Association's annual meetings. The total amount of time that I spend on this activity each year is, when I add it all up, surprisingly high. But I do it voluntarily, right? And what real good am I doing? What comes of a bunch of tax professors sitting around and talking in a conference room? Doesn't sound like real work, does it?

I think that we might also seem suspicious in the public mind because, to put it simply, we love our jobs. When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduate courses, I enjoyed what I was doing so much that I actually felt guilty when I cashed my paycheck. If we are so happy, then maybe we are being overpaid and underworked, right? Of course, plenty of people outside of academia would actually work for a lower salary than they receive. (I'm talkin' 'bout you, Wall Street!) If one believes in competitive labor markets, however, the salaries of college professors are set in response to the salaries available in alternative jobs. Professors in med schools, law schools, and business schools earn the most (but still much less than they could earn in non-university jobs, as a matter of compensating differentials for the fact that being a professor is actually a fulfilling job with a great deal of personal autonomy); professors in humanities departments earn much less. In some cases, in fact, the lowest-paid professors in even a great university are earning, at most, a solidly middle-class salary but putting in much more than forty hours a week.

Academics have been struggling with this problem for as long as there have been academics. If we do not start to change public attitudes at least a bit, the public will continue to underfund our institutions. That means that they are underfunding their children's path to a better life and the country's future prosperity. This cannot continue.