The University as Welfare State

Why you should want kooks teaching your kids


A colleague recently observed that the university is the last bastion of the welfare state in this country. Putting aside whether we ever really had a welfare state, the idea contains some truth. The university does have socialistic elements, though they are fast disappearing in our current economic and political climate.

The most obvious of these is tenure—whereby certain faculty members are awarded lifetime jobs. The practice has come under intense scrutiny by corporate-minded critics, but it’s not the only one detractors point to. Professors get summers off and large chunks of vacation time throughout the academic year. Senior professors at research universities also tend to receive light teaching loads in exchange for producing scholarship, research, or creative work. Often, though, no tangible or immediate scientific or cultural advance results, other than perhaps a book that no more than 200 people will read. So-called “teaching faculty,” working on yearly or multi-year contracts, carry heavier teaching loads. But even with four or five courses a term, they still have those summers and holidays free. The pay isn’t great, but, let’s face it, there are harder jobs. (Adjunct professors are a special category. They have been excluded from the university-as-welfare-state and are the most striking indication of its imminent demise.)

Those of us who work at universities are often people who wouldn’t do well—indeed, might not survive—in a conventional environment. I can think of at least three people who are brilliant teachers, beloved by their students, who, if made to work outside of academia, would probably end up living in a cardboard box.

At this point you may be getting worried, thinking about the bunch of loonies who inhabit the expensive institutions that credential your children. But there is more to it than that. These people can be invaluable in the lives of young people. They are, by virtue of their eccentric nature and fixation on personal and idiosyncratic goals, symbols of that aspect of life that is not practically useful but can be intellectually and emotionally compelling. Students need to be exposed to these esoteric enthusiasts and pixilated pedants. They help keep life from becoming too materialistic, airbrushed, and devoid of imagination. Read the first chapter of Dickens’ Hard Times if you want a picture of what life would be without them.

Still, the cost. The university-as welfare-state could proceed unimpeded when college cost $4,000 or $5,000 or even $12,000 or $20,000 a year. But it now costs $40,000, $50,000, or $60,000. The problem lies not with us faculty, who tend to be modestly paid, but with what the commercial culture has made college become—a place that has to compete with other institutions in order to boast more buildings designed by big-name architects, more high-class eateries with exotic menus, and more state-of-the-art gymnasiums with climbing walls. Universities are straddling the world of big business on the one hand and of the welfare state on the other.

Where will the university go? Will it throw out the welfare state as Bill Clinton did, and disavow any taint of socialism as Barack Obama has done, despite Republican claims to the contrary? In time, the movement toward free-market competition will undoubtedly eliminate the socialistic aspect of the university. That will create a more efficient educational system, but one with fewer kooks and fewer Don Quixotes. Students will be the poorer for it.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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