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A Muckraker’s View of the Privileges of Academic Life

Times Education Writer

WANTED: University professor. Good salary. Little work. Lots of prestige. Possible lifetime security. Not much contact with students. Plenty of time to research your own obscure interests. Good chance for government grants and corporate consulting.

If Charles J. Sykes headed the employment office of a big research university, his advertisements to fill faculty openings would read something like that. However, Sykes is a journalist and his scathing appraisal of American universities is contained, not in an ad, but in his new--and much criticized--book titled “ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education.” “ProfScam” is a litany of grievances against what Sykes sees as professors’ flight from teaching undergraduates to the privileges of academic research. Much of the resulting scholarship, he claims, is as useless to the rest of the world as a dissertation he cites about potholders as art.

Sykes, the son of a professor, calls academia “one of society’s most outrageous and elaborate frauds. It is replete with the pieties, arcane rituals, rites of passages and dogmas of a secular faith. It also has an intimidating and mysterious argot (best described as profspeak ) and a system of perks and privileges that would put the most hidebound bureaucrat to shame.”

As a result, he says, students get “watered-down courses, unqualified instructors, a bachelor’s degree of dubious value and an outrageous bill for spending four or five years in a ghetto of appalling intellectual squalor and mediocrity.”

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“ProfScam,” (published by Regnery Gateway, Washington) is criticized by some academic leaders as being anti-intellectual, simplistic and poorly done. By focusing on the abuses by a few professors at some very large institutions, the book insults all hard-working, dedicated teachers across the country, they protest.

“There is no nation in the world that does not covet the system of higher education in the United States,” said Carol Simpson Stern, president of the American Assn. of University Professors. “Were his picture accurate, I doubt that would be the case.”

Jack H. Schuster, professor of education and public policy at the Claremont Graduate School, said Sykes’ contentions are “real garbage.”

“Sure, sure, there are a lot of faculty members out of 44,000 (nationally) who don’t do their jobs well, are disengaged, are tired,” said Schuster, who co-wrote a 1986 book about the lives of professors. “But to condemn the entire professoriate for negligence and malfeasance does a gross disservice to the great majority who are engaged and competent. I for one believe it is a gross distortion of reality.”

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Still, academic leaders agree that Sykes is tapping a well of anger against big universities, often aggravated by the frightening price of tuition. The Chronicle of Higher Education, academia’s bible, recently had an article about “ProfScam” on its front page and cited it again in a piece about how colleges are paying more attention to staff ethics.

Ernest Boyer, head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said his reading of excerpts convinced him that Sykes “caricatures the problems” and generalizes far too much but “what is valuable and on target is that undergraduates, especially freshmen and sophomores at many of the large institutions, do not get the kind of teaching and educational attention they deserve.” Many schools are trying to change that, according to Boyer.

Large Public Response

The Milwaukee Journal, where Sykes was a reporter for six years, recently published excerpts of his book. The newspaper was overwhelmed with letters from readers, more than half of whom thanked Sykes for tossing a grenade into academia’s cloistered tea party. Wisconsin undergraduates complained about huge and impersonal classes, incoherent curricula and teaching assistants whose foreign accents make lectures incomprehensible. Other letters defended professors, calling them overworked and underpaid.

According to Sykes’ publisher, about 15,000 copies of the book have been shipped and a third printing is likely--far from best-sellerdom but a respectable showing for a university-oriented book. At UCLA’s student bookstore, the first small order sold out and several people have ordered “ProfScam,” according to a staffer there.

Other recent books, such as Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” and E. D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” argued in fairly lofty terms for return to basics and classics in higher education. Boyer’s 1987 book, “College,” argued in a scholarly way for improvements in undergraduate studies. “ProfScam” is more of a muckraking, populist tract spiced with quotable putdowns. Its author concedes that he made little attempt to offer balance.

‘Nature of the Book’

“That’s in the nature of the book like this,” Sykes said from Milwaukee where he lives. “Ralph Nader didn’t write about all the good cars at General Motors. He wrote about the Corvairs.”

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Of Sykes’ own experiences with academia, he said that his late father, Jay G. Sykes, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, wrote an article sharply critical of the university and the piece was published a few months after his death in 1985 in Milwaukee Magazine; Charles Sykes was editor. The book grew out of that article.

Endangered Species

As for his own student days at the University of Wisconsin during the early ‘70s, Sykes said he has no complaints. “I really made a point of searching out the best professors on campus. Many of them were the older teachers who still had a traditional outlook. But since 1975, priorities shifted and those professors are an endangered species.”

According to Sykes, what younger professors want to do is spend little time with students and lots of time on their own research, which will win them tenure, grants and outside business contracts.

Parents and students are victims, Sykes asserted, of what he calls a bait-and-switch scam at many large research universities: People want to attend those schools because of the prestige, but the prestige is based not on undergraduate teaching but on what research the professors get published.

Lifetime tenure is one of Sykes’ villains. The choices for lifetime tenure are mainly made by professors who already have tenure. So, while tenure is supposed to ensure intellectual freedom, the process of gaining tenure ensures the opposite, Sykes said. Young teachers, he said, “must often be very careful to produce research that confirms the intellectual orthodoxy of the moment and flatters the older professors.”

Renewable Contracts

Sykes wants tenure abolished and replaced by five-year renewable contracts, with teaching skills emphasized as much as research. He also calls on legislators to require that all professors at state institutions teach at least three courses--or about nine credit hours--a semester.

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The author said he visited Ivy League and big state universities around the country--including Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois--interviewing students, teachers and administrators during his research for the book. He also cites scholarly journals, educational experts, campus newspapers and even student guidebooks as his sources.

Stern, the professors’ association president, said that Sykes ignores “a very deep connection between teaching and scholarship. They feed each other in a fertile way.”

Donna Shalala, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, called the book “a cheap shot at a soft ankle” and said that Sykes does not understand that the task of research universities is to train scholars as well as teach undergraduates. And, Shalala pondered, if the public is so dissatisfied with big-name state schools, why is it harder than ever to gain admission to such universities as UC Berkeley?

However, Sykes shrugs off such criticism and seems pleased with his reputation as a rabble-rouser and the resulting controversy.

Sykes promises to return in the near future with another book, a guidebook on how to choose a college.


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