Why I left my faculty job disillusioned with higher education, academics and science.
It was a long time coming, but an easy choice in the end.
Escaping from my own heart of darkness
I retired from my quarter-century career in higher education the better part of a decade ago. In the intervening years, I have missed higher education exactly zero days, zero hours, zero minutes and zero seconds. One of the best days of my life was when I exited my campus office for the last time. There are some elements of the faculty experience that I miss – like walking into a class full of bright kids and being able to help them further their goals and ambitions, but it pretty much stops right there.
On the way out, several people asked me if I was sure that I knew what I was doing. I was only 60, well short of the time that most faculty retire. And lecturer positions are plum in higher education. There are no mandatory research or service responsibilities. All you are required to do is lecture. It's a great setup.
Thanks to a glut of advanced degrees, there are people in line everywhere to snap up any university faculty position available – no matter the pay. We had one adjunct who slept in his office for months until he could find an apartment that he could afford. Though unfortunate, it's a relatively common occurrence.
The last decade of my career provided me with the opportunity to travel to universities around the country. What I discovered in my travels was that my growing disillusionment with higher education, which I will describe in detail, was widely shared among faculty nearly everywhere that I went.
During my career, I had the opportunity to teach the majority of classes in the physics catalog. Astronomy, astrophysics, optics, meteorology and engineering physics were my favorites. Great subjects, and most of them attract top-flight students. Astronomy was a 100-level general education class that was nonetheless fun because many students have a high degree of native interest in the subject. Attendance was surprisingly good.
I did not take lightly my decision to retire early. I had the financial ability to retire because I saved scrupulously by living like a student for most of my career. But if I had been able to discern a reasonable path forward, one with integrity, I'd have stayed for a few more years. Teaching is a wonderful profession. It's a privilege and an honor to be entrusted with shaping the futures of students.
But during my time in higher education, the landscape shifted dramatically under my feet. In the end I had to retire. Staying around would have put my personal imprimatur of approval on an enterprise that I had come to see as falling tragically short of its ideals.
Higher education, at least in my view, has come to exist mostly for the purpose of transferring wealth from one part of the government back to another, with a tidy profit - an arrangement that would be considered usury in most other contexts. The scheme involves encouraging students to acquire massive, government-backed loans, lifelong debt which cannot be discharged even through bankruptcy, to support an explosion of programs that most students don't need and an exponential grown of administrators.
At one point, near the end of my career, I had an extremely bright student who wanted to be a high-school teacher. He was the number one student, by grade rank, in a difficult class. I was also his academic advisor, so he came to my office frequently.
This student, who was married with several children and working a job on the side, expressed some concern about student loan debt. My advice to him was to abandon the idea of teaching. The low pay would all but ensure that his student loan payoff would extend into decades.
I showed him how to use an amortization table to analyze the costs vs benefits for several careers with different earning potentials. This young man literally could not afford to realize his dream in a noble profession. It was the truth, but I hated myself for having to say it.
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Higher education has four cohorts: students, faculty, staff and administrators. Students, as far as I'm concerned, come first. That does not, mind you, mean that other cohorts should accede to every student demand. But the majority of institutional focus should be on educating students.
Faculty come next. As far as I'm concerned, education, at any level, is principally about students and teachers - with everyone else in a supporting role. Those supporting roles, filled by staff and administrators, are important to the success of the institution, but they should never supplant teaching, learning and research.
Staff are generally wonderful. But there are some who are not – and they all seem to have lifetime appointments. There were technology staffers in every institution of my experience who used their positions as a cudgel against those they disliked. We had to operate our own multimedia and computer systems because the support from the people who were supposed to do it was nonexistent. Staff also insisted on opening up all incoming equipment to ID it. It didn't matter how delicate or expensive the item happened to be. This once resulted in a property ID sticker being placed on the correction plate of a new telescope with a thumbprint on the objective mirror.
Administrators, like staff, were generally wonderful. I really appreciated what most of them did. It's when they were not wonderful that things went south. I encountered administrators who were guilty of incompetence, plagiarism, fraud and misuse of public funds on a grand scale. The only thing that ever happened to any of them was that they got a better job elsewhere after eventually driving things into the ground.
I've never seen an administrator take a pay cut during lean times. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that administrators generally make the decisions on salaries?
The administration at my university once attempted, during a round of budget cuts, to surreptitiously purchase a very expensive house for the current university president (who already had a nice, university-owned home). Whether or not this was a good idea was beside the point. Purchases like this one are typically approved by trustees or boards of education, with plenty of public input. Not by administrators behind closed doors.
The Idaho State Journal wrote an editorial questioning this process. I wrote a column about it, A Bridge Too Far. I was almost certain that there would be trouble over this despite the fact that everything in both pieces was true. My colleagues were taking bets on the outcome.
One may, as it turns out, use their faculty position to advocate for Bigfoot, 9/11 conspiracy theories, postmodern nonsense and all manners of woke insanity - but tell the truth about a compelling matter of public interest and you'd better watch your back.
About faculty. Many of my colleagues, across disciplines, were just simply wonderful. They were smart, humble, fearless, tireless, engaging and a joy to work with. I learned something new every day. But there certainly those who were none of the above. The number of faculty who coast after tenure, or use tenure to advocate for nonsense, is notable.
The problem with this is that the number of faculty who choose to eschew debate over scholarship is also notable. That's because it turns out that you can get in a lot of hot water for criticizing other academics for poor scholarship.
A lot of “the science” done at universities these days is bullshit (as is some peer review). It's your job as an academic and a member of an elite professional community, one that the public is supposed to be able to trust, to call out poor scholarship when you see it. Tenure is supposed to allow this process of review and criticism to occur without retribution.
But the worry, for many, is that what goes around comes around. It's just a lot easier to keep your head down and your powder dry for the next round of budget cuts – something that administrators conveniently wield like a cudgel.
I and others called out bad science when we encountered it. There was no dearth of it to call out either. But this comes with a risk. At one point a committee was formed to decide if I should be sanctioned for uncollegial behavior. I had no chance to engage my accusers because I didn't even know about the whole thing until it was over. Most of the people involved later expressed embarrassment. I took that as a good sign.
This incident explicates my disappointment with academia. I worked hard for years to earn a position as a lecturer because I thought that a big part of the eventual payoff would be the opportunity to exchange ideas with smart people. I imagined spirited debates followed by beers at the nearest off-campus pub. I imagined continuing my education with wise colleagues.
Some of this happened, but I also found territorial petty tyrants, bickering over nonsense, jealousy and lots of people who’s egos are, quite inexplicably, large enough to serve as their own source of gravity. These colleagues would much rather go after you behind your back than debate the issues face to face.
As I mentioned before, a lot of “the science” currently conducted at universities, with government funding, is pretty useless by most fair reckoning. Nonetheless, I saw investigators get generous funding for all kinds of things that either did nothing to move society ahead or were based on a pile of manure.
At one point, I was involved in a project to make a high-speed switch for network applications. The logic behind the device was very innovative, but it suffered, operationally, from effects of scale. It was basic physics. The fact that the switch would plainly not work in the manner intended did nothing to put as much as a speed bump in the way of the project going forward for several more years. As long as the money was there, it was going to get spent.
The bottom line in higher education is money. If those who believe that Earth is the center of the solar system can come up with enough money, you may rest assured that a university somewhere will have an institute of Geocentric research. And it'll come fully staffed with a small army of administrators.
One such endeavor that I witnessed up close was the establishment of a sketchy research institute in nuclear science. This institute was helmed by a faculty member whose single qualification was his willingness to promote fringe science in order to appease a failed administration desperately seeking a win. In this case, several qualified faculty did the right thing and stood up to call out the questionable science and unusual system of administration and oversight.
Unfortunately, this was to no avail. When the institute finally collapsed after several years, with tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for and student employees owed wages, no one received even as much as a reprimand. The entire debacle was pinned on a single, low-level administrator who'd conveniently fled town.
Even though this episode had no direct impact on my role at the university, it was still a soul-crusher. It's the kind of nuclear science that Donald Trump would be involved in if you gave him a lab coat and a dosimetry badge. The fact that this university was home to a number of people who should (and probably did) know better, but went along to get along because it was good for their careers, was nearly the last nail in the coffin.
But not the last nail. That nail was driven by members of the cohort that I generally respected the most – the students.
I was around long enough that students in my classes from decades ago are now mid-career professionals. I've encountered them in hospitals, laboratories, business and government. It's rewarding to see a student for whom you provided a letter of recommendation succeed in a professional career.
Though most students are a joy, not all are. There are some who are neither hardworking, honest nor ethical. There are students who will only put forth the minimum effort that they deem necessary to advance. There are others who've been taught that victimhood is a reliable alternative path to success. The idea that learning is supposed to accompany matriculation is an abstraction. When these individuals do not succeed, it's your fault, not theirs. It only takes a few per year to muck up the works.
Over the years I was accused of misogyny, of bigotry and of being anti-gay for not passing students who didn't earn the grade. I was accused of xenophobia for exposing cheating (on an industrial scale) by a cohort of students from the Middle-East.
Having to deal, semester after semester, with a system for guarding academic integrity that was heavily biased toward students, simply to keep administrators off the hook, wears you down. This was ultimately my coup de grâce.
At one point near the end, I was dealing with hundreds of cases of academic dishonesty a year. Colleagues from around the country were having the same problems with the same cohort of students. The problems continued outside of class. My teaching assistants were followed and threatened. Females on my staff were disrespected. Some of these students would occasionally follow me home (the mother of bad ideas). My wife was harassed.
Many bribes were offered for changing grades, some quite large. I'm sure that this was a widespread practice around campus. I also doubt that every of those bribes outside of my domain was turned down.
Though this sorry episode at my institution eventually made the front page of The New York Times, our administration (and many others, as it turns out) could not care less. These students were a goldmine of revenue and were staying no matter what they did. It was, in fact, better from a business standpoint if they had to keep retaking classes because their governments were paying for everything.
At one point, the president of the university held a press-conference where he claimed that these students were innocent victims of religious and cultural bias. He asserted, without evidence, that due to accusations against them, there had been 50 break-ins at the housing complexes where most of them lived.
The police would confirm none of this. The reason for that is that is that the claim was manufactured from whole cloth.
I have a video of a student that we caught with a cheat sheet. When confronted, he crumpled the paper in his left hand. When asked to open his left hand, he transferred the wad of paper to his right hand. This went back a forth a few times before he finally put the paper in his mouth and ate it.
One of my TA's found a half dozen male students, missing from an exam, in the women's bathroom across the hall from the exam room. When he walked in, they attempted to flush their contraband down a commode. This TA, having come prepared, used an industrial rubber glove to recover the goods.
The students involved waked out of the building and kept on going - subsequently failing the course. But somehow, miraculously, they were able to enroll in other classes for which my class was a prerequisite.
It got worse. In one particularly distressing episode, a student found an unguarded backpack belonging to one of my TA's, removed a copy of the preliminary key for an upcoming exam, and photocopied it before returning the original. We discovered this because there were some errors in that version of the key which were repeated, verbatim, on about 50% of the exams turned in. Problem diagrams were exact copies. One problem required a paragraph to explain the method of solution which was recreated faithfully down to misspelling and punctuation.
When we discovered what had happened, the young man who's backpack had been compromised was distraught. He thought that it was his fault that the cheating had occurred. The national media and his own institution made it clear to him that members of this cohort were victims, not perpetrators. Since it could not be their fault, it must be his.
It occurred to me in that instant how unfair it was to subject both my staff and legions of honest students in these situations to what amounted to emotional abuse. There is not a hell hot enough for those who would participate in such a system.
That included me. I submitted my resignation a day later.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time with family, riding bicycles and motorcycles, arranging and playing music. Follow him on Twitter @MartinHackworth
Dear Martin: Read your op-Ed first in its shorter form on the ISJ. I left a comment as Guest137 noting the administration’s readiness to accept all whining by this “cohort” uncritically. During this time I also noted that very competent Jewish faculty were being purged on specious pretexts: Carl Levinson in Philosophy. Sharon Sieber in Languages. A professor in Mathematics. And others. The pandering and nepotism at ISU are monumental. But there is also this current of anti-Semitism.
My great issue in the College of Arts and Letters is that Departments seemed to despise any student counseling other than pushing them to pursue graduate degrees or law school - as if this country has a deficit of lawyers or Ph.Ds! I saw this as very irresponsible since it would burden these graduates with more student debt while many of them would never find fulfilling employment in academia or the law professions. Also I thought that by pandering to students with grade inflation we were setting them up for crushing awakenings in the more demanding grading systems of law schools. So I would never push law school or graduate school on every adviser but instead urged them to pick up elective credits in information systems security or some business school courses which might open some doors in the private sector. This earned me some ill will from my so-called colleagues.
I wish I could talk to you more about these issues. We still live in the same city I believe.
Well, I can tell you this. When Dan and I were coming down from Robbers Roost, we met a fellow on a bike. We mentioned what we were up to and your name. His face lit up like a beacon. He told us that you were a prof of his and how much he enjoyed and respected your lectures. So take that as what your career was really about, and know you did good. Cheers