Academics are a peculiar lot. They spend their early years, when most others are starting to work, getting married and having children, pursuing dreams that seem odd and obscure to most people. In the public’s imagination, professors are dedicated and single-minded — a view reflected in the 1950s Disney movie The Absent-Minded Professor. Fred McMurry wasn’t really absent-minded; he was just absorbed in his work to a laughable degree. For many academics like Fred, work is not the main thing; it’s the only thing. Academics wake up in the middle of the night thinking about how to solve a problem, how to reconfigure an equation, how to work around a dilemma. They exalt in the smallest progress, and despair when they are blocked. Their work often comes before family, friends and, occasionally, eating. Not only are they peculiar, most are obsessed.
One result of this obsession is that academics experience difficulty separating who they are from what they do. They think what they do is important, useful, necessary and (probably) valuable to the world as a whole.
For example, think of those researchers at LIGO who recently discovered gravitational waves rippling across the universe, verifying a part of Einstein’s theory of general relativity that had waited since 1916 for resolution. You can bet they think their discovery (and the money spent to pay their salaries and create their research facility) was important. However, most people don’t know or care about Einstein’s theory, as research into fundamental science isn’t something they think about much. And, if they did think about it, most people would say such research is a waste of money. This popular attitude is something that all academics face: Most people don’t believe in the fundamental worth of what they do, be it particle physics, forensic anthropology or literary analysis.
Nowhere is this made clearer than in Louisiana. According to recent comments made by Joseph Rallo, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, state colleges and universities will be asked to cut their budgets by a minimum of $70 million in this current fiscal year while cuts could rise as high as $242 million. Next year, it’s likely to be worse. Given that 80-85 percent of the money in higher education goes to salaries, cuts of this size require firing professors, putting people on furloughs and eliminating majors and classes. LSU, for example, has let go nearly 2,000 employees, including 360 faculty members, since the cuts started in 2008.
These wrenching readjustments belie most of the assumptions we make about professors. For example, Forbes Magazine recently listed “university professor” as the third least stressful job. Really? Not in Louisiana where higher education funding has been cut in half over the last eight years from $1.5 billion to $750 million (general fund dollars). Along with these cuts comes a great deal of self-examination. Universities have been asked to justify what they do, rate programs that are less important, or less productive, essentially planning for their own down-sizing. What effect has this had on those academics in the trenches, supposedly enjoying the happy cycle of research, teaching and service?
I recently spoke to a few of these academics, and here’s what they said. “I love my job, I believe I’m good at what I do and I truly feel like my ‘mission’ or ‘calling’ is teaching. [Yet] the consistent lack of acknowledgment, recognition or tangible gratitude and reward from the state of Louisiana for my efforts and success is increasingly demoralizing career-wise on me and other faculty.” Another said Louisiana is “suspicious of education, especially higher education,” which, to this professor, seems odd in a state that “seems to have a hard time understanding that the only way up is through a real investment in education.” Another said if the “cuts to higher education were actually to take effect, Louisiana would be confirming the worst stereotypes that are held by those who warned me not to move here in the first place.” And, finally, another said he finds it “hard to encourage anyone to apply for a job in this state. If anything is clear, it’s that this state is not terribly interested in education, higher or otherwise.”
These higher-education budget cuts affect more than just programs; they cut to the very heart of who academics are as people, damaging how they think about themselves, undermining their sense of worth. This is not to say that academics are fragile beings who flourish only in hothouse surroundings, protected from the real world. Popular images to the contrary, getting a Ph.D. requires grit, determination and self-reliance. Only the toughest make it through the 8.2 years (on average) of toil, setbacks, poverty and health challenges to receive a degree. In fact, according to the Ph.D.
Completion Project that examined 10-year matriculation rates among students pursuing doctoral degrees in five broad fields (engineering, life sciences, math and physical sciences, humanities and social sciences), only 55 percent of women and 58 percent of men receive the Ph.D. degree at the end of their studies. Compare this to the 91.3 percent five-year matriculation rate for medical school. What this means is that those admitted to M.D. programs are almost twice as likely to finish as those accepted to Ph.D. programs. In Ph.D. programs, only the strong survive. But even the strong have limits. In Louisiana, those limits are being tested.
Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.