A philosopher tries his case against academe in the court of public opinion
COLUMBIA, Mo 11/17/13 (Feature) -- In a striking example of "walking the walk," University of Missouri philosophy professor Zachary Ernst announced publicly this month he's walking away from his tenured (read "lifetime employment") faculty job.
Ernst's essays on the perils of academe have gone viral on Twitter and Facebook, turning the normally-private maneuverings of academic politics into a cause célèbre that is at once an indictment of intellectual arthritis, a plea for national change -- and a war of words.
"Professional academicians have it pretty darn good," writes Merinda Simmons, Ph.D., a University of Alabama religious studies professor, in an essay countering Ernst.
But walking away from academia "put in high relief just how cruel and ridiculous the profession is," responds former professor Jason Tebbe, who takes Simmons to task for being a "lifeboater": a young professor who secures tenure, only to turn a blind eye to the non-tenured faculty "drowning" around her.
Ernst helped stir all this up after trouble between his philosophy professor wife Sara Chant and their Mizzou department over what the couple characterized as a "sexist" denial of her tenure. Mizzou administrators resolved the dispute in Chant's favor. But her husband keeps fighting, albeit a different battle now, over the underpinnings of university power. Already a tenured philosophy professor, Ernst has done what philosophers do best: Question Foundations.
"Why does tenure even exist?" Ernst has been asking for months. He has publicly labeled the job security pact "a perverse incentive structure that maintains the status quo, rewards mediocrity, and discourages potentially high-impact, interdisciplinary work."
Ernst's complaint is powerful because he comes by it not as a wannabe, but as one embraced by the system he's calling out.
Ernst had a job he considered "excellent by normal standards. I had a lot of freedom to pursue the kind of research and teaching that I wanted. My students -- especially my graduate students -- were excellent. I enjoy teaching, and believe philosophy is increasingly important and relevant."
Philosophers, Ernst insists, ask Really Big Questions that are evermore critical in our complicated age.
He enjoyed research too, but not the politics that can relegate good research to inconsequence. That part of Ernst's tale is an old story. "A judgment is made -- based largely on the prestige of the publisher and journal -- about the quality and likely impact of one's work," he writes. "Unfortunately, if you're writing papers that are eventually published in outlets that one's colleagues are unfamiliar with, they're unable to make a decision about the quality of that work."
The big loser is so-called "interdisciplinary research" -- in Ernst's case, a philosopher publishing in a computer science journal. It's a practice universities promote, but often fail to support. "To put the point bluntly, interdisciplinary researchers get paid less," he explains. "People who have relatively narrow interests do much better financially than those with broader interests."