The Fault of Academic Stars

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”–Julius Caesar

The star system is one of the worst afflictions to hit academia, and responsible for many of academia’s current problems. Frank Donogue wrote a recent blog on academic stars that got me thinking about the topic.

Academia has always had stars. There have always been professors with prominent reputations, and distinguished professorships. The difference is that these professors were admired for their academic work, and their star status took the form of academic admiration.

It’s quite amusing that some critics of academics think the “star system” was created by literary theorists. Stanley Fish might be a master of the star system, but he was just following a trend impacting all of academia. In reality, English professors are among the smallest stars in the academic galaxy. They attract attention not because they are stars, but because some people really hate them, and because the humanities still have enough ethical concerns about the star system to raise concerns that are largely ignored in the rest of academia.

In essence, the “star system” is another term for expanding inequality.

And the biggest problem is not a few individual star professors, but an entire academic system devoted to the stars. I don’t have the exact figures on the standard deviations for faculty salaries, but I know there’s been a vast increase in academic inequality. The great divide between the tenure-track and adjuncts is the most important “star” system.

Whole fields of study have become stars. I noted in my book Patriotic Correctness how the average salary of English professors barely nudged the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, while the average salary of business professors showed a massive jump.

This isn’t because the field of business suddenly became a brilliant source of insights into our capitalist system. No, it’s because the rich got richer, and universities got better at fawning over them in exchange for donations, which were funneled into business programs. You can look at an elite university’s MBA program and find that half of the faculty are distinguished “named” professors. Yet the actual teaching and research done in business programs remains as useless as it ever was.

Money is the real star on campus. It has become routine to judge science professors (and increasingly professors in many fields) based on the quantity of their research grants rather than the quality of their actual research. That’s the star system.

In athletics, the star system has resulted in million-dollar salaries for most big-time coaches. Among guest lecturers, celebrities of dubious intelligence are paid vast amounts of money for appearance fees at colleges, while serious thinkers are often ignored. And the administration has become its own solar system, with a rapidly accumulating number of overpaid vice-presidents (all with many moons of assistants) orbiting the biggest academic star of all, the president.

The star system corrupts academic thinking. PR matters more than learning, public image matters more than public service, and good publicity always trumps good scholarship. The stars of the administration are accustomed to applause, not criticism. I used to feel sorry for administrators, with often thankless jobs spent appeasing the demands of faculty divas. Now administrators have become the divas. And shared governance is not part of a diva’s vocabulary.

The solution to the star system is simple: a devotion to academic values, rather than economic values. The only problem is that the stars run academia, and they like the system. But in an ideal university, there should be campus salary caps, beginning with presidents who are paid no more than three times the lowest-paid full-time professor. There should be a ban on the entire concept of “non-tenure-track” hirings. There should be much more equal salaries, equal status, equal privilege. And where we have stars, they should be based on academic quality, not the market.

If we refuse to be underlings, we will no longer need to fault the stars.

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