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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didn’t care that his lectures and course materials were timely and top-notch, but instead simply lectured from old and out of date notes.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.

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