The blog post by Terran Lane of the University of New Mexico provides a good example of the frustrations in academics today. Much of this is well plowed soil. I link to it because I think he is spot on about more than a few things.

The availability of external funding for the last 30 years has equipped American colleges and universities with a great deal of equipment and facilities. The availability of funding for grad students and post-docs has energized a vast educational complex that has come to depend on external grant money to maintain built up infrastructure. Naturally when an institution expands in good times, it finds itself top heavy in overhead when the good times end.

Ambitious people step forward when presented with the opportunity to grow programs and institutions when times are cash rich.  But when the cash influx begins to taper off, these same people find themselves in the position of having to decomission or dismantle parts of the very organization they helped to build.  It is hard for people in any circumstance to feel like they are moving forward when they have to make do with less.

One response to restricted university resources is to increase competition for teaching positions and tenure. Candidates with the best potential for winning grants are highly prized in any candidate search. The result of this is that professors today are burdened by administrative expectations in the hunt for resources in order to maintain close to what they already have.

Friends at PUI institutions are also feeling the heat, possibly due in part to the rise in undergraduate research programs that took off in the 1980’s.  Undergraduate research in chemistry, at least, has grown into an expectation rather than a plus. This brought the buzz saw of the grant machine into the grassy quads of many quiet institutions.

Certainly no untenured prof is going to throttle down their scholarly activity for the greater good of science funding.  Faculty will continue to struggle with this as long as grants are a major metric in rank and tenure.

Which brings me to my final point. Scientific knowledge as national treasure.  I am sifting through Chemical Abstracts Service data bases searching for something nearly every day. This resource of ours, scholarly and pragmatic knowledge, is one of the crown jewels of human civilization. It is the collective contribution of people and institutions going into the distant past and across the curved surface of our world.  We should cherish it for what it is- an archive of achievement, a repository of knowledge for application to future challenges, and a representation of the best of what we are capable of.

The notion that academia is the apex of the life intellectual has never been entirely true. You do not have to be in industry for very long before it becomes quite clear that there are a great many smart and creative people outside of academia. People who become professors are people who are in love with the very idea of the university and of higher education. We must find a way to allow research active faculty to throttle down the grant cycle just a bit so they may throw their energies into serving their institutions in the traditional manner. By service to  their students, to scholarship, and to the advance of civilization.

That said, it seems embarrassingly obvious to say that our academic institutions are a critical part of our civilization past, present, and future. But today our institutions are in peril of substantial decay if left to antagonistic legislators and fulminating demagogues bent on terminating programs in the name of social reconstruction.

We know how to operate our university/research complex. Absent some of the mania in the horse race for grants, perhaps we can offer a bit more student contact with professors. A BA/BS degree must be understood to mean that a graduate has absorbed knowledge, sharpened reasoning ability, accrued some judgement, and has developed a professional demeanor that can only come from the personal interaction between people. We should expect from our institutions that a professor is a professor, not a shift supervisor.