Cashing out the academic piggybank, but on who’s backs?

Why would a tenured professor quit academia to work in industry?

Most would answer this question with recourse to salary figures or the greater opportunities for upward mobility. Terran Lane, a former computer science professor at the University of New Mexico, recently outlined disturbing trends in higher education that contributed most to his decision to leave academia for the offices of Google.

His first reason? The opportunity to make a difference. As a former science student, I can corroborate that the social narrative that interprets scientific vocations generally as ones in which one can make a real difference in the world misleads countless students to venture along the path toward becoming a professional scientist. The counter-narrative to this – that of the disciplinization and overspecialization of academic disciplines, especially the special sciences – is a shocking interruption of the stream of belief that contemporary academic scientists are more so movers and shakers than other professionals.

In Lane’s words, “Google is a strong example of an organization that actually is using advanced computer science to make a real, positive difference in the world [The implied contrast is with academics who merely research advanced computer science without putting it into practice]. While it’s also difficult to make an impact at an immense company like Google, in the current climate it seems like better chances than in academia,” for reasons that he details afterword – reasons such as centralization of authority and decrease of academic autonomy, hyper-specialization, insularity, narrowness of vision, poor incentives, and gathering momentum behind the mass production of higher education.

One can corroborate almost every tension he identifies as contributing to unsavory facets of academic life just by following the recent history of funding for academia, both the teaching and research ends. It is especially apparent in strong conservative, powerful states such as Texas, but affects almost all colleges and universities in the US. The ways in which overall strategies for success at colleges and universities work at cross-purposes to the cultures of their individual components (departments and administrative branches) sets up impossible expectations for success in an increasingly competitive internal environment that is increasingly removed from the external environment (i.e. the economy and available job markets). In other words, the academy traditionally does not produce what the economy needed as far as a mass labor force. But now, academia is being molded to do just that.

What Lane doesn’t say, however, is that even though the faculty are put in these difficult situations, they often have alternatives, a way out. More experienced educators and researchers have a career of contacts, skills, and knowledge about other options for their lives on which to rely. Students, on the other hand, are left with the short end of the stick. And the implications of all of this get cashed out via their education.

What will happen with these generations of students who were taught in this age of the production model of education-as-information-transfer designed with one primary thing in mind – to make money (secondarily, to get you a job)? For what ought we to hope as far as their life prospects? Certainly, the emphasis there will not be on becoming a flourishing individual. I can’t help but be torn between thinking that Lane is doing the smart thing and wondering what would happen to future higher education students if excellent researchers and educators “wise up” and follow his lead on doing the smart thing.

If Plato is right that education is really the art of orientation – the trick being to turn one’s focus from that which only appears to matter to that which actually matters – then the academy as a whole has a lot of learning to do. Addressing the kinds of problems and internal tensions that Lane describes requires more than just an exodus of qualified individuals; it requires a reorientation of the goals of the academy in light of the potential prospects of future students. The education of the youth was always of the utmost importance to Greek philosophers such as Plato, for on the backs of future citizens lies the hope of living a good life.

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