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Crossfire in Fat City

An exchange.

3:45 PM, Jun 3, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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University of Illinois at Chicago professors Barbara Risman, William Bridges, and Anthony M. Orum write this letter to the editor in response to “Fat City: Thank you, Illinois taxpayers, for my cushy life,” which appeared in a recent issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD:

In what he imagines to be a searing expose of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and public employment generally, David Rubinstein has come up with a new way of turning a personal failure and an ideological hobby horse into an indictment of everybody else: “I took advantage of the system for years. You could have too, so there is something wrong with the system, not with me.” Perhaps some of the politicians who have recently had to admit to extramarital affairs might try mounting the same defense.

As three department heads who successively supervised Rubinstein during the last two decades of his career, we feel just as embarrassed and betrayed as a spouse would be if a partner admitted to abusing her trust, and then attacked her for letting him get away with it.

Now that he is securely retired, Rubinstein admits that he didn’t keep up his scientific research or act with integrity as a teacher. He didn’t care that his lectures and course materials were timely and top-notch, but instead simply lectured from old and out of date notes. He didn’t pour his time and energy into the development of doctoral students, the creation of our next generation of scholars. And he has the gall to use his own dereliction of duty to further his ideological attack on academia. Worse yet, through innuendo and cherry picked statistical factoids, he denigrates the work of public sector employees from janitors to judges.

While it was certainly clear to us, as Rubinstein’s supervisors, that he wasn’t pulling his own weight, he managed to deceive us regarding the true extent of his inattention to academic responsibilities. We wish he – or some of his students – had been honest about this earlier and regret that we did not discover his irresponsibility until now. It’s true: Slackers do manage to keep being promoted sometimes, in both the private and the public sector.

But while Rubinstein was sliding by, most of his colleagues wrote important books, published articles that helped shape social policy, supervised and mentored students and secured grants that helped the Illinois economy and contributed knowledge to be used for the public good. Most faculty members do all this while at the same time working hard to be good teachers in their classes. In fact, UIC’s faculty is remarkably committed to our students, for whom education is the route to the American dream.

As Rubinstein admits, it takes painstaking research and revision to get published in academic journals. It’s true that these journals are not read by large numbers of the public. But policy-makers, journalists, other teachers, NGOs, research departments in private businesses, and other interested parties rely on the journals, precisely because they are so rigorously vetted, to get the latest research and best practice findings. In turn they get the information out to wider audiences or use it in ways that benefit the public.

The reason that talented people are eager to enter the teaching profession is because they are passionate about doing new research and imparting their knowledge to young men and women, not because they expect to lead a life of leisure and affluence. Faculty members are hired only after they have accumulated evidence of their research expertise and their teaching excellence. Most are well into their third decade before they have finished schooling, and yet they start at wages far less than a newly minted MBA in her 20s. After that, they serve six-year apprenticeships as assistant professors, with absolutely no assurance they will be accepted into the ranks of senior faculty. Some burn out, as Rubinstein obviously did. But most care passionately both about their research and their students. Most work far more than a 40-hour week, taking home student papers and research projects over the weekend, during school closures, and more recently, during mandated furlough periods. They care deeply about solving scientific problems, understanding the real meaning behind a great work of art, finding empirically based solutions for social problems, and challenging young people to expand their horizons and hone their talents.

As supervisors we don’t usually need to check to see if faculty are working hard enough. We can tell that by their work – when they find a solution to a scientific puzzle, resolve an enigmatic paradox about human behavior, or produce highly qualified graduates who move on to a wide range of jobs in the public and private sectors that they would otherwise have been unable to get. Unfortunately, once in a while – more often in the past when competition for faculty jobs was not as stiff – someone slips through who takes public funds and does not help create new knowledge, mentor undergraduates, or train future scholars and experts in his or her field.

According to Rubinstein, he was one of slackers, and we agree with his own assessment that in a perfect world he would have been long gone before he was able to retire and collect a pension. But the alternative to occasionally being taken for a ride by an impostor like him would be a rigid bureaucratic rule-based quantitative measurement of performance.  Unfortunately, such a system would actually discourage the kind of work most faculty do on their own time and it would not be able to distinguish between excellent, innovative products and sloppy make-work projects.

To use Rubinstein’s admitted departure from academic norms to justify cutting salaries and modifying benefits to faculty would be a great disservice to the public writ large. It could deprive university students of many of the dedicated professors who, even when offered alternative careers pursue the academic life because they are committed to teaching and because they have a passion for original scholarship. True, a few impostors like Rubinstein exist as they do in every system. But in our experience, thankfully, most are neither slackers nor frauds: they are the men and women who have helped to educate past generations of Americans, and who stand ready to educate future generations of Americans as well.    

Barbara Risman is head, and William Bridges and Anthony M. Orum are former heads, of the department of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

David Rubinstein responds to Risman, Bridges, and Orum:

I expected that my former colleagues would be angry about my violation of the code of omertà in "Fat City: Thank you, Illinois taxpayers, for my cushy life" (The Weekly Standard, May 30, 2011). Everyone loves a whistleblower—until they are the target.

I did not expect character assassination: "slacker," "burn out," "impostor," "personal failure," "betrayed," "dereliction of duty." Maybe I should be grateful that they didn't accuse me of killing puppies or drag my mother into this.

Note the contrast between this trashy philippic and my own treatment of former colleagues in the original article: "Some of my colleagues," I wrote, "were prodigious researchers, devoted teachers, and outstanding departmental, university, and professional citizens."

I also expected an honest and careful reading of what I wrote. But Risman, Bridges, and Orum violate Rubinstein's First Rule of Rhetoric: If you want to be vicious, be careful.

They claim that I admit to having "lectured from old and out of date notes." Perhaps the source of this fabrication is my line "soon I had abundant [lecture] material which could be reused indefinitely." Pity they chose to ignore the next sentence: "Adding new material required hardly more effort than the time to read what I would have read anyway."

I did not in fact rely on "out of date notes." I did indeed use some old notes. What teacher of social theory wouldn't? Emile Durkheim hasn't written much in the last 90 years, and students don't need to be kept abreast of endless reexaminations of a writer a real science would have left in the dust long ago.

But in classes that focused on areas of ongoing research I continually updated. You would hope that someone among three professors would have noticed this distortion, or would have been honest enough to accurately report what I said. I hope their research is more careful and honest than this.

Letting their anger get the best of them, my prosecutors claim that "he admits that he didn't keep up his scientific research or act with integrity as a teacher." Another fabrication. I never said or implied any such thing. The last professional paper I published—after my promotion—was accepted by the leading journal in my field. According to Risman, Bridges, and Orum (RB&O), I have successfully scammed dozens of editors and reviewers, as well as the American Sociological Association—having won its prize for the best theory paper of the year.

RB&O put these words in my mouth: "I took advantage of the system for years." They also claim that I "admitted departure from academic norms." Both spurious. The article was about what is possible in the system. I admitted to no wrongdoing in teaching or research. I could have written exactly what I wrote having published a dozen books and scores of articles (which, alas, I did not). Did I never take advantage of the looseness of system? Can anyone make this claim?

Risman, having joined the department after my reviews and promotion, has likely read nothing of what I wrote. Bad enough. But Bridges and Orum know full well the honors I have received in the profession and that a (small) literature has clustered around some of my work. Such dishonesty approaches slander.

Note the dogs that didn't bark. There is no reference to the way sociology, and especially our department, has been politicized. Anyone doubting this need only take a stroll around the department. The devotion to various political causes can be seen on posters proudly arrayed. Not publicly visible are encouragements to the faculty to teach "social justice." In one case, a faculty member was celebrated for motivating students to become activists. Yet they sneer at me for riding "an ideological hobby horse."

I suggest that my prosecutors read Weber (Politics as a Vocation: "a lecture should be different from a speech") or Stanley Fish (Save the World on your Own Time) to see that propagandizing under cover of scholarship is a kind of fraud: a disservice to students, taxpayers, and scholarly norms. Political preaching is far worse when it occurs in the political monoculture that is the university.

The corruption of sociology can be conveniently illustrated. Joe Feagin has written dozens of books and articles addressing race relations. Having received numerous awards and honors, including invitations to speak at UIC, he was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1999. Nicely demonstrating Orwell's aphorism that there are some ideas so preposterous that only intellectuals can believe them is Feagin's understanding of race relations in this country: our civil rights progress is "tantamount to turning off a few of the ovens at Auschwitz." This was a mere eight years before Barack Obama was elected president. That someone so perceptually and morally deranged could be so honored by the ASA tells us that Harvey Mansfield is on to something in characterizing sociology (and his own discipline of political science) as a "Meathead Major." This despite the fact that some sociology, including much produced by my former colleagues, is first rate.

Nor do RB&O address the issue of retirement benefits. Already receiving, or in line to receive, $100 k+ per annum for life I wonder if they could defend this without blushing—or gagging. They probably could. Professing to defend "public sector employees from janitors to judges" (judges?), my critics don't realize that, in a time of scarcity, the cost of their benefits will be borne by the needy and powerless of Illinois.

The data I present on the advantages of government employees are dismissed as "factoids," which I suppose means facts you don't like. Interesting, that these proud champions of scientific research easily dismiss findings that don't suit their preferences even when presented by Alan Kreuger of Princeton. Is the data on K-12 education factoids? Do they join the shrinking pool of union hacks and their political lackeys—which does not include Obama—in defending public schools?

So, too, they dismiss data (Neal Gross of Harvard) on the ideological homogeneity of universities. Philip Tetlock of Berkeley—whose book on the failures of social science prediction (Expert Political Judgment) won numerous prizes including two from the American Political Science Association—is also dismissed as a purveyor of factoids. A nice demonstration of how politics corrupts scholarship.

It is unfortunate that I need to address these assaults on my character and distortions of what I wrote. Attention ought to focus on the issues I raised in "Fat City":

(1) the unsustainable retirement benefits drawn from a crashing economic system.

(2) the privileges of tenure.

(3) the light teaching load and the cushy life of the professor. (In Academically Adrift, Arum & Roska present these disturbing "factoids": After two years of college 45 percent of students had made "no significant gains in analytical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communication." After four years 36 percent showed no gains. While many factors are involved, including lax admission standards, 32 percent of students reported that in their previous semester no course required as much as 40 pages of reading per week. This may understate the problem: those not in college may make comparable gains.)

(4) the use of the classroom for political preaching in a political monoculture. (Can we expect taxpayers to fund ideas, like Joe Feagin's?)

(5) public funding of esoteric academic inquiry. (Maybe it's self-interest, but I could be persuaded on this.)

(6) the doubts Tetlock, Mansfield, and others have raised about the scientific value of sociology.

(7) the advantages of government workers and the failures of K-12 education.

Can anyone doubt that these issues need open debate?

I must admit that I hesitated about writing "Fat City." I did not like tainting those of my former colleagues who were indeed "prodigious researchers." There is no personal bitterness in my article; indeed, I acknowledged that I felt well treated by the department: "My colleagues, to their credit, promoted me to full professor knowing my ideological heterodoxy."

I expected anger and perhaps a sense of betrayal: the dilemma that any whistleblower faces. Naively, as it turns out, I did not expect a cocktail of bile and venom and willful distortion.

Which leads me to conclude that "Fat City" needed to be written.

David Rubinstein is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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