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MIZZOU PROFESSOR: "Why I jumped off the Ivory Tower" -- 2

A "cowardly" choice?   Read Page 1

Larger, systemic university problems are more worrisome. "What makes me pessimistic about my own university and public universities in the United States in general, is that their inability to adapt isn't due simply to bad leadership or an unfavorable economy," Ernst explains. "It's based on structural features that are self-reinforcing."
 
Creeping corporatism has become one of those features. "I strongly suspect [the appearance of business executives in higher education] is a very bad development," Ernst explains, citing a "huge increase in the number of administrators" and "increasing reliance on non-tenure track, adjunct faculty who are underpaid, overworked, and without any job security."
 
He also worries universities such as Mizzou mistake "corporate leadership" for "business expertise."
 
"Running a small business, founding a new start-up, and being CEO of a major corporation are quite different propositions," he explains. "Big businesses like Sprint or IBM...dominate their respective sectors already, and they flourish in the status quo."
 
As centers of innovation, universities should hire entrepreneurial leaders, not "people whose experience would naturally lead them to a conservative, short-term strategy."  Coupled with "the gigantic edifice of the university, already at odds with any potentially disruptive effort," Ernst says corporatism has made overcoming academe's natural resistance to change "a Herculean task."
 
For his peers in the humanities (philosophy, English, literature, and so forth), Ernst advises paying more attention to  money.  
 
"Allocation of financial resources is a good indicator of what a person or an institution values," he writes. "If a department or a person is consistently short-changed when it comes time to decide on budgets, it's a bad sign."
 
Humanities departments are being squeezed as never before, and at precisely the worst time.  Writing and critical thinking skills have become the spirit and soul of a tech revolution that was once just about computer chips and hard drives.  Content has become king, and the humanities supply the content.
 
But quality content and the minds that produce it need money.  "Those of us in the humanities have gotten used to getting by with so little, that we haven't even noticed the impact it has on our ability to do good work," Ernst warns. "If that doesn't change, we'll slowly starve to death and not even notice."

The possibility of starving to death in "the brass handcuffs of tenure" ultimately led Ernst to give it up -- a move he says many have called brave, but he calls "cowardly."

Tenured professors have "practically zero" upward mobility, and earn less every year with adjustments for inflation, he explains.  "Tenure means a tiny chance of a disastrous outcome [job loss], but near certainty of a gradually worsening career and downward economic mobility until you eventually retire." 
 
The private sector, while it carries more risks, offers more rewards.
 
"That's why I applaud the bravery and unshakable determination and courage of tenured professors everywhere, who keep their jobs despite their depressing long-term prospects," Ernst concludes. "You're the real heroes!"


-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat



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