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Column: Education as business puts academic freedom at risk

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One of the advantages of attending different academic conferences is that you can share your academic work outside your comfort zone and meet talented professors from other institutions. Furthermore, in casual conversation, we learn what is going on in academic fields.

Recently, I went to Rutgers University to deliver a paper and attend the 55th annual conference of the American Association for Chinese Studies. I have been a member of this organization for close to 40 years.

After a series of serious meetings, several of us went to a local bar to have a beer to enjoy our down time. One of the group was a young and ambitious scholar. During the past several years, he has proved to be a potential scholar in his field. We respect his professionalism and like him as a person.

But this time, he was not overly cheerful. When we asked him why he was not his normal self, he shared his story with us.

He has taught in a prestigious private college in the West. He has not received tenure, yet. He takes his job very seriously and works hard to perform at his best.

Also, he has received exceptional evaluations from his students and colleagues.

Since he takes his job seriously, he is able to maintain his dignity as a professor. Moreover, he provides detailed syllabi in which he makes it very clear the responsibilities of the students.

There was one instance when an assignment was given, but only one student turned the assignment in on time.

Of course, as a serious professor who cares about students learning, he used strong language to warn those students who do not take their studies seriously.

He thought he was doing his job as a professor. He did not like scorning the students, but he felt it his responsibility to do so and wake them up.

However, a few days later the dean of academic affairs sent him an email and asked him to make an appointment to see him. He thought his actions should be praised, but he was wrong. The dean warned him that he had created a hostile environment for the students and felt that he should be reprimanded.

Later on, he found out that several of the students had gone to the dean to complain.

Remember that he does not have tenure. He is at the mercy of the administration. Being in this powerless position has made him feel as if he was treated unfairly. This is the way in which teaching no longer becomes fun. To some degree, it is the dean who created a hostile environment for faculty.

After he opened up to us, he asked us what he can do in that position. Interestingly enough, one of those in our group used to be the dean of a university. He shared his perspective on the issue.

The dean also has a boss. At a time when retention of students is a top priority in our schools, the dean has to deal with this problem. Students are the source of income.

Faculties are the costs of the college. If students fail, drop out of the school or transfer because of tough standards, the school loses revenue.

Unlike in other businesses, the customer (the student) is not always right when it comes to the educational field. However, college has now become a business, so this young man’s incident has become typical of what is experienced in other areas of business. Academic freedom is compromised for retention.

The former dean went on to say that if the dean is comfortable and confident with his position, then he will side with the faculty to maintain academic dignity. If this dean in insecure about his job, he needs to please with his boss, which means he will need to side with the students to maintain retention.

The whole thing reminds me of a time when I was shopping at Walmart. I saw a gentleman checking the produce to see whether the vegetables and fruits were in good enough condition to sell. If the vegetables and fruits were bad, then he threw them away.

If he takes his job seriously, he will make sure all of the produce is in excellent condition. This will ensure the customers will return to the store. If he does not take his job seriously, he runs the risk of compromising his job and the reputation of the store.

I shared this example with our group, and I continued by saying that the choice is yours. But in this young scholar’s case, he has a family to support. He may have to swallow his pride and compromise his academic standards. After all, unemployment is not a good option. It is a sad thing.

Professor Yu-long Ling, a Franklin resident, is an expert in foreign policy. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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