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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nutty Professors, Academic Publishing, and Tenure: Welcome to Whackadamia

Hug a Tree, Punch a Student

     Upon earning her Ph.D from Kansas State University in 2008, Meghan Buckley began teaching in the Soil and Waste Resources program at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. She had earned a B.S. degree in agronomy and international agriculture at Iowa State University. In July 2011, the assistant professor led students on a field trip to a forest in Lincoln County. After it was time for the kids to get back on the bus, Dr. Buckley got off the vehicle to round-up a few no-shows. When the professor returned to the bus with the straglers, a 23-year-old student named Wesley Shaw sarcastically clapped for them. Angered by this, Dr. Buckley walked over to Shaw and punched him several times in the face as he sat in his seat. The punched-out student filed a complaint.

     Following the results of an internal investigation conducted by the university (this was hardly a case for Sherlock Holmes), Dr. Buckley resigned from the school effective at the end of the school year. In the meantime, although out of the classroom, the professor would perform research duties. Dr. Buckley subsequently filed a lawsuit to block the public release of the contents of her personnel file.

UCLA Lab Fire: Accident or Crime?

     In December 2008, in a UCLA chemistry lab, a fire broke out when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames during an experiment. The fire ignited the clothing of a 23-year-old research assistant. Sherarbano Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died eighteen days after the accident. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin, causing second and thirt-degree burns over half of her body.

     The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, on December 27, 2011, charged 42-year-old chemistry professor Patrick Harran with three counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards that resulted in the lab assistant's death. If convicted, the professor could be sentenced up to four and a half years in prison. The university could be fined up to $1.5 million on each of the three counts.

     UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs called the criminal charges unwarranted, outrageous and appalling. To a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, he said, "What happened in December 2008 was a tragedy, an unfathomable tragedy. It was not a crime."

     In June 2014, Professor Harran pleaded guilty to lesser offenses in return for a $10,000 fine and 800 hours of community service. In December 2015, Harran was dropped as a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The professor, however, did not lose his teaching position.

It's Not Booze, It's My Heart Medicine

     Between 2005 and 2011, Dipak Das, the director of the University of Connecticut's Health Center's Cardiovascular Research Center, published the results of his research in dozens of scientific journals. Dr. Das was known for his findings that red wine is good for the heart. In 2008, the university initiated an internal review of the doctor's work after an anonymous complaint of irregularities in his research.

     In January 2012, the university reported that its investigators had uncovered 145 instances, over a seven year period, in which Dr. Das fabricated, falsified, and manipulated data. As a result, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (do these people carry guns?) opened an independent investigation of his work. Journals that published his articles were notified.

     In May 2012, Dipak Das was fired from the University of Connecticut. Following his $35 million libel suit against the school, he died in September 2013 at the age of 64.

     Other scientific studies, ones not involving Dr. Das, suggest that red wine is in fact good for some people. It's the ingredient resveratrol.

The Book Professors Would Like to Burn

     Higher Education?, a 2012 book by Andrew Hacker, a retired Queens College professor, and Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times journalist, is based on the idea that what takes place on campus isn't education, high or low. The authors blame our failed higher education system on, among other things, the emphasis on research and publishing over classroom teaching. And these authors don't like tenure.

     In a 2012 article about Higher Education? in The Atlantic, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz interviewed Professor Emeritus Hacker. The following are excerpts of the professor's responses to her questions:

"There are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college, and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It dosen't matter what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you....The second reason to go to college is to get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges."

According to Professor Emeritus Hacker, "The problem is that there are just too many [academic] publications and too many [professors] publishing...and many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count on how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this?"

"Academics," said Hacker, "typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from ages 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line....So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom....And even people who get tenure really don't change....What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have tenure....What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks....You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate....They become  infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking."

More on Tenure and Academic Publishing

     For more than 30 years, Martin Russ taught creative writing in several college and university English Departments. A published novelist, he wrote, in 1980, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor. This is one of the most entertaining, informative, and helpful books I have ever read on the subject of teaching people how to write. In his book, Professor Russ also provides a professor's take on college administrators (they are mostly idiots) and gives the reader a peek inside the ivory tower. Professor Russ says this about tenure: "I have the impression...that it is the untenured in most English departments who are the most effective teachers. This is largely due to the anxiety arising from job insecurity, which forces them to work at full capacity....The tenured professor is never forced to justify his classroom work to his students, and can go on year after year in a take-it-or-leave-it way in which arrogance overrides the kind of teaching that has to do with helping, sharing, giving."

     Professor Russ, back in 1980, realized that too many professors were taking time away from their teaching to write books nobody reads: "English professors are always turning out extraneous 'textbooks'....or else collecting other people's writing and publishing them as anthologies."  


  1. This is a good post. It both horrifies me and makes me laugh. The university system is broken. We need some educational reformation. The sad thing is how we pay for our kids to go to these institutions and don't care what's going on. Many colleges are nothing more than glorified babysitting or party schools. Our adult children get out and aren't prepared for earning a living. Some of these professors have gone completely rogue and need to be fired.

  2. So Hacker can't have it both ways. If not being tenured means nontenured professors have stifled intellectual freedom, then tenured professors should have total academic freedom. But he calls them stagnate. Which is it, Professor Hacker? Pick a lane.