Thursday, September 22, 2005

Academic Nomads

Just wonderful stuff in Jay Nordlinger's "Impromptus" today, one of my favorite features on the National Review Online. Perhaps because he too is an intellectual "internal exile" from a liberal academic environment, I feel like we're really sympatico. (Plus when I email him he always takes the time to send a reply!)

I've blogged about one item below, and I'll add another now. Mr. Nordlinger writes about the Paton building on the University of Michigan campus at Ann Arbor. It's being torn down, and the son of the man for whom it was named, UMich Professor William A. Paton, the "father of modern accounting," wrote a letter to the trustees asking them to reconsider:

It has come to light that — following large gifts from Stephen M. Ross — the Business School plans major construction that apparently may include razing the Paton Accounting Center. Before making a major mistake, the Regents should reflect upon the history of this building and its honoree.

Born in Michigan, Professor William A. Paton received three degrees from The University of Michigan: A.B., 1915; M.A., 1916; Ph.D., 1917. Beginning his teaching career at The University of Michigan in 1915 as an instructor in economics, he gained the rank of assistant professor in 1917, associate professor in 1919, and full professor in 1921. He retained his appointment in the economics department until his retirement in 1959. In 1947, Professor Paton was appointed Edwin Francis Gay University Professor of Accounting.

Professor Paton was one of the first professors in the School of Business Administration, founded in 1926. His scholarship, teaching, and writing attracted students from all over the United States and the world. With accounting at its core, the Business School flourished and achieved national and international reputation. Professor Paton taught some 20,000 students and worked tirelessly to assist in their placement in accounting practice, teaching, and other fields. He wrote five textbooks and dozens of articles in The Journal of Accountancy, The Accounting Review, The Journal of Political Economy, and other publications. . . .

For a professor reading this today, this encomium could have come from the moon for all it has to do with the way we live now. Professor Paton never switched institutions. He never moved away. He got all his three degrees from the same place. He never tried to get a six-figure salary by moving, or threatening to move, to some new institution head-hunting for name talent. His whole life was a standing affront to Stanley Fish's dictum that an academic loses value during every year that he stays at the same school. And yet at the end of it, he had a building named after him.

For those who don't know, things don't work that way now. In the normal run of things, B.A. and Ph.D. must be from different schools. Your first tenure-track position must be from a different school than you Ph.D. school. As your reputation rises, you must then trade up to higher prestige institutions; and if you don't it's assumed you can't, and you can't, because you're just not good enough. And your home institution will say, if he's not good enough, why pay him the same we pay the academic stars? In short, an academic who wants to be successful has to be on the move as much as an army officer. But unlike an army officer, he or she does not move within a single institution with a strong sense of esprit de corps.

Now there's a reason for this: in a word, competition. Every professor of (say) French literature is, first and foremost, not a member of UMich or Princeton or Claremont College, but a member of the trade of French literature professors, each competing to be the best. The schools benefit from being able to select the best, and the professors are spurred on by fear (of obsolescence), ambition (for a high salary), and vanity (about the praise of being the best) to keep working hard, developing new theories, finding new sources, and moving the field (well, if not forward, at least in a new direction). American universities are, still, by and large, the best in their field largely because of the size and number of institutions and scholars competing. By contrast in Britain, or France, or Germany, or Japan, the small number of competing institutions renders the sting of competition less bitter, the innovations less uninterrupted, and the results correspondingly less impressive.

But there is a human and intellectual cost to this and they both go the same way: the spur of competition makes the successful academic rootless, both intellectually and in life style. Far from being rooted in their state, the professoriat of, say Auburn University in Alabama, is no more Alabaman than the football team is. No matter how heartily the football team and the academic departments at Auburn loath each other, they share one thing: the pressure to excell among their peers leads both to recruit nationally. In fact, (I'm doing this from memory), studies found 40% of all professors in the US received Ph.D.'s from just five schools: Harvard, University of Michigan, Princeton, Berkeley, and Stanford). The constant mobility undoubtedly takes its toll on marriages and furthers integration into the national republic of letters, i.e. the section of the public that pays far more attention to what they read in the New York Review of Books than to what they hear from the "townies" around them. Combined with the steadily declining position of those in thinking positions (professors, pastors) in salary and prestige, compared to those in management positions, this goes a long way to explain the notorious liberalism of academia. Those who wish to stay in one school for the sake of their families, or their roots, or for the position they've built up in their home institutions, will pay a price in scholarly reputation.

John H at Confessing Evangelical, has discussed how capitalism breaks up community. I'm not sure capitalism is the right word. Rather I would put the emphasis on competition, and the size of the pool. When the pool expands, competition grows more intense, and institutions get more work out of their employees. Like I said, the fact that America is one pool of almost 300 million (not to speak of international scholars), while academically, Europe is still a set of small ponds, the largest of which (Germany) is only 85 million, is part of the dynamism of our academic system, a dynamism unchanged by the ritual genuflections on the altar of anti-capitalism and anti-individualism. In international competition, the big pool wins against the small pools. Someone committed to research can't help but support a measure that will work against the nature indolence and "stick-in-the-mud-ism" of human nature. But there is a price.