Sunday, August 21, 2011

College Professors: Get Out While You Can

From Smith College economics professor James Miller writing in Inside Higher Ed:

"Tenure won’t save us from a higher education collapse. Start making alternative career contingency plans now because this collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.

If you have tenure and therefore think that your college would never get rid of you, consider what would happen if most of your school’s peer institutions replaced expensive tenured faculty with cheap online courses and used the savings to cut tuition by 50 percent. Even if your school has a healthy endowment, many members of your Board of Trustees or Regents probably have business backgrounds and would consider it financial malfeasance for the school to bear costs that the majority of its competitors had shed.

I'm far from certain that the higher education market will disintegrate. But the reasonable chance that it might should be enough to get young and middle-aged tenured professors to think about what we would do if forced out of academia. And bear in mind that if academia suddenly collapsed, the job market would be flooded with former professors, making it extraordinarily challenging for us to get jobs, such as editing and teaching high school, that are well-suited to many professors' skills."

HT: Steve Bartin at Newsalert


At 8/21/2011 8:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny how this guy Miller talks about education in purely signaling terms, about how the "stigma" of not going to college will start lessening if some of the students start heading off the reservation, and academia as essentially a jobs program. If he thinks high school will be around either, he clearly hasn't been paying attention to all the virtual K-12 programs springing up everywhere. If anything high school will be easier to destroy, considering how standardized the curricula are. Just like I enjoy all the leftie journalists getting sacked left and right these days, I will be positively gleeful when the same happens to all the leftie academics. :)

At 8/21/2011 9:25 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Let's see, I'm a non-tenure professor that teaches on-line with no benefits and no job security despite teaching at the same school for 10 years (usually at an overload).

Meanwhile, tenured profs grab bennies and perks, the ability to tell the dept at the last minute they cannot teach all in exchange for publishing articles that no one reads.

Real hard for me to sympathize. Their political bent does not matter. Tenured professors are like the industrial unions, they do not realize that the world has changed.

At 8/21/2011 10:17 PM, Blogger AIG said...

Online classes are awful. Taught by "inexperienced" professors makes them even more useless.

No self respecting school that tries to differentiate itself on QUALITY, is going to be teaching online courses for anything more than freshman or liberal arts classes..or marketing maybe. Try teaching fluid

This scenario seems far-fetched in that its ignoring the fact that universities don't compete on PRICE (not the good ones).

Rather it is missing the bigger development in higher ed, in my opinion, which is the focus on differentiating on quality in grad and research rather than undergrad. Who or what teaches English 101 to undergrads is pretty irrelevant. Who teaches Financial Engineering to grads, is quite important.

What should be told to professors is: if you're teaching a useless subject that Wikipedia can teach better, go teach in public school. Otherwise if you want to stay in business, focus on the stuff that requires highly specialized knowledge and experience to teach.

At 8/21/2011 10:24 PM, Blogger AIG said...

This pointless assault on "academics" and "academicians" is a bit silly. On one side we all talk about the fact that we need to compete on innovation and technology...and on the other hand we complain about "leftists professors" that we all think are about to go broke when the "bubble" bursts. How exactly is this "bubble" going to burst...if education is more important now more than ever?

You can't have it both ways. There's no "bubble" in higher ed, in my opinion. There's just a lot of BS majors being taught. But that doesn't affect anyone else other than the ones who agree to go for those majors. Who cares?

At 8/21/2011 10:25 PM, Blogger Mark J. Perry said...

But what if the online classes are based on taped lectures by "super-star" professors? For example, what if students around the country could study Principles of Economics based on video lectures by Greg Mankiw, etc.? Financial engineering is taught by the best professor in the country, using his/her taped lectures in an online format, etc. That could be part of the new model, not some average adjunct lecturer teaching online, but super-star profs....

At 8/21/2011 10:26 PM, Blogger Highgamma said...

You have written often about administrative bloat. When businesses downsize, middle management is the first to go. They'll be the canaries is the coal mine.

At 8/21/2011 10:30 PM, Blogger Highgamma said...

Your point about superstar lecturers is, in my mind, the next stage of textbook development.

At 8/21/2011 11:39 PM, Blogger AIG said...

Well, "superstar" lectures is like "superstar" textbooks. As the writer above me wrote, its the next evolution in textbooks. No argument there. However, the value of a class is more than simply the delivery of the information. The same textbook can be used at Harvard and at a local community college but the value delivered at Harvard may be greater.

IE, how are universities going to differentiate themselves in the future? Information is freely available to anyone these days on the internet. So it can't simply be about some slide shows or some video lectures. It going to be about research and picking the professor's and your classmate's brain. That has been my experience at least, in my recent MBA. Most of the value was in getting that 4 hour long discussion in class with professors who were, lets say, CFA institute leadership members.

And this may be why undergrad degrees just don't cut it anymore in most majors; we've moved beyond simply providing information. (this kind of goes along with my theses on "grade inflation" and "education bubble": I don't think any of these 3 phenomenon are real. We're just missing the shifts in the value being delivered)

At 8/21/2011 11:52 PM, Blogger AIG said...

You brought up adjuncts. I think a lot of schools are moving in their direction too. They can be tremendously useful if the adjuncts are experienced industry practitioners...more so than tenured professors. But an experienced industry lecturer would be awfully wasted on an online class. (I would have no problem in getting rid of the tenure system and getting more industry participation in the classroom instead)

In a class once, our professor showed us a 1.5 hour video presentation Clayton Christensen made to Xerox (which wasn't meant for external viewing, but what the heck!). It was great, and goes along with the model you described...but a good lecture of that sort should raise a lot of questions in the viewers mind. If Christensen was in the room, instead, we could have gotten a lot more out of it.

At 8/22/2011 12:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AIG, many online classes that exist today may be awful as you say- I don't know as I don't use them- but that's no indication of what's possible. I agree that no "self-respecting" school would teach online, that's why they're all about to go out of business, :D as they're all stuck in the rut of only one way to teach: a lecture with the prof physically present. I'll go you one better than fluid mechanics: my grad school class in advanced digital-signal processing was being digitally recorded when I attended almost a decade ago, so that they could play it back for the online class. You're right that the universities are so removed from reality that they don't compete on price, all the easier to destroy them. :) As for the grad/research crock, M summed that up best, "publishing articles that no one reads."

As always with the academic defenders, you simply change the subject: who cares about grads, that's a much smaller group of students and likely will disappear altogether. There will always be a role for live tutors of some sort, but they'll still be on IM or video-conferencing more than anything else.

At 8/22/2011 12:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The part you're not getting is that a university "education" is pretty useless when it comes to innovation and tech. Education, as it is currently taught, is now more of an obstacle than ever. Even engineering majors are padded out to all hell to rip the students off. You assume that the universities will still exist to differentiate themselves, I don't think they'll have a reason to exist, just like the newspapers today. As for picking people's brains, such discussion can all be reproduced online where necessary and without a "university" involved. I don't think anyone claims that undergrad degrees are just about providing information, but I certainly think the problem is that most of the information provided is either useless or irrelevant. I don't know why you think an experienced industry lecturer would be any better in a live classroom than an online class. Yes, you should be able to ask questions also, but you can do that online too. It won't all be taped lectures and that's it. If that were the case, you could cut the price down from $20k/semester to $100. :)

At 8/22/2011 2:34 AM, Blogger PeakTrader said...

Can students learn karate, for example, watching Chuck Norris online and at home as well as students being taught by average black belts at studios?

I doubt it, although it would be cheaper.

At 8/22/2011 3:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lol, Peak, that may be the unintentionally funniest and dumbest comparison I've heard from a university apologist. :) Get back to me when we give a shit about karate and anybody is attending Karate Kid University. ;)

At 8/22/2011 6:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that the educational quality of this blog is not mentioned once in this conversation so far. Knowledge transfer has a lot of different vehicles: The evidence is clear and it is here. Engaged people discussing a topic of common interest is the root of education.

Maybe instead of dreading the change in higher education from technology we should embrace it and find better ways to stimulate our students to new and improved ways of learning. I doubt the universities’ skies are falling.

At 8/22/2011 7:27 AM, Blogger Michael Ward said...

The quality of "distance education" has improved dramatically over the past 20 years (but that is not saying much). With the use of the Internet, suppose it's quality will continue to become closer to the traditional classroom experience. Since when is technological advance a bad thing? Technology made it so that the farm population went from >80% to <2% and manufacturing employment went from ~40% to <20% while farm and manufacturing output soared. I suspect the same to happen in Higher Ed. There will be less demand for researcher/instructors, but the change will continue to be gradual. New hires will have different job descriptions but mid-career types will not be fired wholesale.

At 8/22/2011 10:09 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

A model of public on-line university education is Western Governors Univeristy. This is an effort by nineteen states to provide proficiency or compentency in majors such as education, business, IT and nursing. One aspect of this model is the importance of mentoring by faculty and students. Lack of mentoring is mentioned as a problem for many students in on-line programs.

At 8/22/2011 10:17 AM, Blogger morganovich said...


i think that may be too simplistic a view.

universities provide more than education.

they also provide credentialing.

just getting into MIT and lasting 4 years in their engineering program is very meaningful.

you have been vetted and tested.

someone from an "everyone gets in" online program has not.

and who is going to grade these papers and exams?

you'll get a lecture from a top english professor and read "the bell jar", but who is going to read your essay and what do they know about what the professor thought?

who is going to read your 200 page thesis on GARCH, understand it, and comment meaningfully on it, much less grade it?

this distance learning thing seems badly overblown to me.

reading gould's books is not the same as sitting in his seminar.

At 8/22/2011 11:12 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

I noted mentoring as a problem for students with on-line edu. Almost all of the faculty openings at WGU are for mentors! Looks like WGU is reconizing the problem and it is an opportunity for profs.

At 8/22/2011 11:18 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

"Looks like WGU is reconizing the problem and it is an opportunity for profs."

but probably not for students.

these are not going to be "superstars".

At 8/22/2011 11:25 AM, Blogger arbitrage789 said...


What about all the university administrators who sit around on their @sses all day, collecting fat paychecks.

At 8/22/2011 11:28 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

"these are not going to be "superstars".

Yes, I agree. The best university experience for myself was a small class with a superstar professor.

If I was Univ ed. Czar I would eliminate the huge lectures and replace with on-line. The small lab sessions (physical) would remain. This would leave the last two years for small classes(physical). As Edu Czar I would grant four year on-line degrees for certain proficiency degrees. Post-graduate edu I am not sure about, and would have to wait to look at results from my blue-ribbon commission :>)

At 8/22/2011 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Don't underestimate the science of curriculum design. The bachelor level class I designed is 26 pages long with detailed course outcomes and detailed assessments with scoring rubrics.

All learning is self-learning along with a measure of guidance and prodding. Some students just need more guidance and a sharper stick to prod with.

How do you grade investments? Grading an assignment is not much different unless you are going to use subjective criteria. If you can decide whether to make a $1 million investment, most instructors or “hired guns” can decide if a student earned an A, B, C or failed the class, and they will have feedback from the rubric to know why.

Maybe the future will have employers deciding whether the employee should be hired using better criteria than they presently use. Is it really the universities' job to be the HR department for employers?

At 8/22/2011 12:07 PM, Blogger juandos said...

Well I don't think the need for real teachers in undergrad and grad school will ever go away...

Way back in the late sixties and early seventies this very topic was tossed around thanks to an undergrad physics professor who showed us many 8mm of Richard Feynman lectures - wonderful lectures about the structure of the atom!! Just excellent and easy to understand since Feynman had that gift of delivery...

Said undergrad physics professor (who at one time worked on atom bomb design) wondered if in time his present job would be supplanted by the film delivery of courses...

Thirty years later it still seems that a hands on teacher can round out a course nicely...

At 8/22/2011 12:52 PM, Blogger Che is dead said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8/22/2011 12:53 PM, Blogger Che is dead said...

"Maybe the future will have employers deciding whether the employee should be hired using better criteria than they presently use." -- Walt G

The 1971 Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power took away an employers right to use cognitive ability tests as a indicator of employability because of "disparate impact" on minority hiring. Since then employers have used college entrance and the securing of a BA as an indication of employability.

All fields should be subjected to basic knowledge testing for certification just like accountants, stock brokers, etc. This would allow people to seek out education from a variety of sources and to receive accreditation based on real acquired knowledge.

At 8/22/2011 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think Griggs would even apply more to requiring a BA. If a high-school diploma requirement is deemed "unreasonable" as defined in Griggs why would a BA be less so? It would be interesting to see if denying jobs to unemployed people can pass the Grigg’s test given that minorities have traditionally been disparately impacted more by unemployment just as they have with lower high school graduation rates.

I agree with you that job related knowledge and value-added qualities are what employers should seek out. I suppose just being accepted to Harvard is an accomplishment that few people can obtain, but that does not necessarily mean a good fit or a good hire.

At 8/22/2011 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walt, I agree that we're already seeing much learning move online, to blogs and other online resources, but I find it strange that you think the universities will ever capitalize on this, considering that they're involved with almost none of it now. The universities have long claimed that they didn't want to be the HR department, let's see how they like it when that's taken away, along with all the money that comes with it. :)

Michael Ward, unfortunately these changes have been stalled for so long, that I see a collapse coming. The problem is that education is highly overstaffed, so many of those displaced by online learning will never find another job in education. They may move to another information job, assuming they're basically competent and can learn (not always an assumption you can make ;) ), but many, likely most, will never work in education again.

morganovich, you assume that credentialing/certification can't be redone online, if anything it will be done better and is likely the easiest aspect to replace. Rather than wasting four years at MIT, you will simply work towards a handful of online certifications in a year, then start a job and keep getting new certifications over the course of your career. You assume that an essay on The Bell Jar has any credentialing value, I don't think anyone will be wasting time on that book online. ;) As for a thesis on GARCH, why couldn't someone comment on it and assess it online? As for Gould or some other superstar, most universities don't have superstars either, so you are comparing to an ideal which the current university system doesn't live up to either.

At 8/22/2011 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

juandos, that example doesn't tell me that there was a need for anything more than Feynman, but that the system has already been very backwards by not embracing earlier methods like playing Feynman videos.

Che, a current college course that has any value, admittedly not many, will be turned into an online certification. Students will simply amass a bundle of online certifications in Organic Chemistry or Basic Business Communication and employers will be able to filter on those skills for the job they want done. All it will take is enough employers to see the benefits of hiring the online certified instead and the current degree system will be dead within a decade. :)

At 8/22/2011 2:45 PM, Blogger morganovich said...


that only works for subjects where tests have either multiple choice or defines quantity answers (like 2+2=4)

the test design you describe does not work for anything analytical that is answered with an essay or anything design oriented.

it may work for some basic rote knowledge based stuff, but not for the more advanced work.

At 8/22/2011 2:52 PM, Blogger George said...

If people think they can get by with videos of famous people, some of whom are also good lecturers, they might wonder why you do not see the model in action.

I am old enough to have seen a vast number of teaching technology improvements. Filmstrips, 8mm film, teaching amchines, programmed learning, somnohypnal instruction devices, telephone remote teaching, web-based courses, slides, lantern slides, transparencies, et very tedious cetera. The record is that they do a fine job of moving tuition to the manufacturers and their sales reps, but they have not delivered.

Then there are problem areas:

Fields with heavy lab commitments come immediately to mind.

Fields with a demand for competent grading come to mind.

If you think you have an alternative model that makes more sense, try putting it into play. I describe a very different one near the opening of my novel "Minutegirls" (which is mostly military scifi, but describes the collapse of the current university system, incidentally destroying American technical competitiveness.)

At 8/22/2011 2:54 PM, Blogger morganovich said...


i think you are really underestimating the credentialing power of a selective university.

years of online certification might get you a job as a plumber, but not as an investment banker.

mckinsey in just not going to care. they already get far more applicants than they need. they want a way to pre vet you.

a degree from yale in english is going to get you an interview. no number of online certs in business and finance from "online u" are.

regarding grading, you really think the one who grades it doesn't matter? the comments you get back are a big part of learning. to learn from gould and then get feedback from some random reviewer is just not the same.

the insight is not there. they cannot tell a real star student from a really good one.

it's not that they cannot comment, it's that the comments you get will not be as good.

i chose my courses as much by professor as by subject material. you want that interaction and that feedback. you want to be able to talk to the star, not some anonymous grader or inferior capability.

that's not going to be a high paying job, nor one attractive to anyone with serious intellect.

At 8/22/2011 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I can grade essays on any topic if you tell me what you specifically want. It's not that difficult; especially if the course is initially designed for third-party assessment.

Research papers, while a bit more difficult, have mandatory components, too. Sure, content experts would be needed in some instances; however, that would be an integral part of the assessment process.

Expect huge changes in higher education as costs increase, technology improves exponentially, and universities run by business-minded administrators operate using a profit model. Everyone, included tenured professors, should have a plan B to earn a living.

People will always be willing to pay someone else to teach them what they do not know. Knowledge is power, and power is addictive.


I assume that universities will adapt or die just like labor unions will. I guess I am an optimist. It makes me a happier person :-)

At 8/22/2011 4:06 PM, Blogger PeakTrader said...

Why pay for and go to aerobics classes when you can watch it and do it online for free?

At 8/22/2011 7:24 PM, Blogger Highgamma said...

I guess the online competitors (most of which are for-profit) will have to deal with their own plunging enrollments first.

WSJ August 23, 2011
Party Ends at For-Profit Schools

"For-profit colleges are facing a tough test: getting new students to enroll.

New-student enrollments have plunged—in some cases by more than 45%—in recent months, reflecting two factors: Companies have pulled back on aggressive recruiting practices amid criticism over their high student-loan default rates. And many would-be students are questioning the potential pay-off for degrees that can cost considerably more than what's available at local community colleges."

At 8/23/2011 9:59 AM, Blogger AIG said...

"Can students learn karate, for example, watching Chuck Norris online and at home as well as students being taught by average black belts at studios?"

:) Thank you. Thats all that had to be said.

Ultimately it comes down to what people want to learn, and the best methods of teaching them. Online classes etc are effective for only some things...but not for the majority of subjects which are real money makers.

The whole continuing INSISTENCE of grouping all "university education" as one thing is just wrong. English 101 has nothing in common with materials science class...and they cannot be taught the same way.

And ultimately, the way one teaches English 101 is pretty irrelevant, as no one that has completed English 101 is going to make money from it. Materials science will make you money.

At 8/23/2011 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


How about if Chuck Norris is beamed live into 200 or 300 gyms live? Online does not mean just canned/taped lectures--that medium can be highly interactive and attractive to many audiences/customers.

The future holds many limitless technological possibilities. Traditional methods of education will still be around if they are competitive/affordable and effective. People are simply not going to go along with the “but that’s the way we will always did it” philosophy anymore. Now I think I will continue my free online Yale game theory course while I watch the scenery around the campground pool :-)

At 8/23/2011 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

George, the fact that the current system didn't use those other technologies much just shows how backwards it already is. I've noted before that the lecture model was already woefully outdated 20 years ago, as it was created when everybody didn't have textbooks so the prof had to read the book and broadcast it to you. A much better way once everyone had books 50 years ago was to have them read chapters, collect their questions before class, then answer the most common issues and discuss in class, yet almost nobody does this. Why? Pure tradition, clinging to outdated methods because you are too dumb to know what's better and your clientele are 18 year-old kids who don't know any better. As for your other quibbles, most fields don't have "heavy lab commitments" and I have no idea why you think online grading would be any less competent.

Walt, I think being an optimist in this case means hoping the universities die, as they've actually been holding back progress for a while now.

Peak, perhaps you didn't understand what I said earlier, but a physical activity like karate or aerobics is completely different from intellectual activity. Not sure why I have to point that out for you. And with the arrival of video tutoring, many have chosen to learn even those physical subjects on the cheap through videos.

Highgamma, many current online schools suck, because they simply take an even weaker form of the university curriculum and slap it online. But considering how bad the college curricula are, I don't think it'll take long for the more competitive online environment to surpass them.

AIG, since you have no argument for how materials science can't be taught online and it's silly to even think that it can't, I don't have to bother responding further. :)

At 8/23/2011 5:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

morganovich, and what proportion of test results are "answered with an essay or anything design oriented?" Not much and since they're on paper, they can be graded online also. I think you may be confusing automation with online. While online learning will certainly be a mix of the two, there will always be some role for human interaction and grading, just online as opposed to in person. You also seem to think that online graders/tutors will somehow have to be inferior to classroom ones, with no rationale for why that would be. You keep talking about Gould as though most college students are learning from him, but most universities can't give you intimate access to superstars either, while online you can at least watch their lectures instead of getting stuck with your mediocre local lecturer.

As for credentialism/signaling, I think you greatly overestimate the value of the college degree as a credential. Essentially what you're saying is that I can come up with an online certification system that is so much better, but it won't matter because people will cling to their outdated and dumb degree model. That's not an argument about what's better, it's only about what outdated and silly notions people have to evaluate what's better. And while it's true that such silly traditionalism will be the biggest barrier to new online certification, I don't think it will be much of an obstacle because I see great upheaval coming across business too, driven by increased competition from the online market. Look at all the music, newspaper, and publishing businesses being destroyed by online businesses. Look at how mobile services like twitter are helping food trucks take out established restaurants. The level of change that's coming is much more than you realize and in that new competitive environment you won't last long if you stick with old and dumb ways of operating.


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