Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Marketplace of Ideas Really is a Marketplace

A little over a week ago Mark Bauerline, an Emory English professor, published an op-ed in the Sunday Review of the New York Times that asked “What’s the Point of a Professor?” In it he laid out a variation of the old “kids these days” argument and lamented that professors had lost their “moral authority”. It was the kind of “what’s wrong with the world” Jeremiad popular in many public discussions.

Bauerline’s article was swiftly skewered by dozens of other bloggers and writers in higher education, from the famous and well-placed (DanDrezner in the Washington Post) to the semi-famous (Steve Saideman, Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed) to the obscure (including me). As Drezner and Reed pointed out, the problem was not merely that Bauerline’s argument was wrong, but that it was published in the New York Times. As Drezner wrote, “off-base op-eds like these are the only source of information that general readers like my mother have about the current state of higher education”.

This isn’t the first time that the NYT Sunday Review has published a misleading piece that grossly oversimplifies the world of higher ed. Six weeks ago Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado, published an argument entitled “The Real Reason College TuitionCosts So Much” in that same publication. It was just as simplistic as Bauerline’s, and met with a similar level of criticism. But it was, of course, widely read.

Why does this happen? Why are the most published voices about higher education those who have the most simplistic views of it? There are dozens of excellent writers and bloggers who understand higher education in all its complexities. Why aren’t they being published?

This state of affairs isn’t because the NYT’s editorial board only wants to publish simplified arguments. It isn’t because of their decision-making at all. The lack of good, widely-available public writing from people inside higher education is because of the choices we faculty and administrators make. To quote the late Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us.

To understand why this is so, you have to understand the dynamic that drives most human behavior: incentives. While for most people being published in the Sunday New York Times would be a very great honor, for most faculty and administrators it’s not that impactful. Academia is famous for developing metrics of productivity, particularly in writing and research. But popular op-eds (even in the NYT) don’t show up in those systems. They don't help you get promoted, or get tenure, or get a better raise. The same thing is true of administrators, who are rewarded and compensated for a host of measured things none of which involves contributing to the public discussion. University presidents will occasionally weigh in, because they can argue to their boards that they are “thought leaders”. But for most of the rest of us working stiffs, there isn’t enough in it to justify the effort.

So why do people like Bauerline and Campos do it? Because they stand to gain by doing so. Both have made careers as “public intellectuals” by publishing books that are both widely read and highly controversial. Every time their name appears in print, their book sales get a bump. Better still, as champions of publicly controversial arguments they are sought-after speakers. Each is represented by at least two speaking agencies that book speakers across the country for various events, generally for a minimum fee of $5000 - $10,000 per appearance. This is the way the modern intellectual economy works. If you want to make money as a professor, particularly in the humanities, the road to riches lies not within the academy but outside of it. And on that road, visibility in publications like the New York Times is the coin of the realm. It turns out that the marketplace of ideas really is a marketplace.

In pointing this out, I am not at all casting aspersions on either of these gentlemen or doubting the sincerity of their arguments. I am sure that they do, in fact, believe what they write. But it is true that both have a powerful economic incentive to make those arguments in as forceful, simplistic, and controversial a manner as possible in the most visible places in the public arena. Which is how they end up in the Sunday Review.

Since this isn’t true for the rest of us who rely for our living primarily on doing a good job within our universities, we don't have the same incentives. We write blogs, because it’s easy. A few who are still rooted in academia and who value more complex arguments, like Drezner and the founders of The Monkey Cage, have managed to land in higher-visibility places – though most of what they write about is politics and other issues more of interest to the wider masses. There are some excellent writers in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but few in the general public read that august publication.

This dilemma is not unique to higher education, but it is particularly problematic for us. We lament the fact that the public discussion is driven to a large degree by Jeremiads and sensationalist headlines (like Time magazine’s infamous “Is College Worth It?” cover). We wail and gnash our teeth as state legislatures slash spending on universities or debate laws dictating how many courses professors should teach. We know that the American higher education system, once and still the envy of the world, is being steadily eroded by a tide of ignorance. But we mostly complain amongst ourselves. If we want to turn this trend around, more of us have to push back against our own incentive structures and speak out. Otherwise the “marketplace of ideas” will continue to be impoverished, dominated by those who know the least about what is really going on in higher education.

1 comment:

  1. Very good points. That said, I think you downplay the benefit for an academic of publishing an Op-Ed in the NYT. There's a huge amount of inter-personal prestige that comes from that, completely regardless of whether that goes in the tenure and promotion file. Most every academic I know would love to be swamped by positive comments, emails, etc., from being seen in the NYT.