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Crossfire in Fat City

An exchange.

3:45 PM, Jun 3, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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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.

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