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Public Administration Scholarship and the Epidemic of Academic Fraud and Dishonesty Part 2 – The Collapse of the Academic Career

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
November 20, 2023

This column is the second in a series on the epidemic of academic fraud and dishonesty being revealed on a daily basis (read the first column here). Lurking underneath this scandal are long-term transformations in American academe that have placed inhuman career pressures on university faculty. Having born the brunt of those pressures and made the decision to exit my intended profession (academic political science), I speak from direct experience.

When I was on the faculty of the public policy school at Carnegie Mellon University there was an assistant professor of sociology and demography with an amazing publication record in the highest quality journals in his fields. All my publications combined could not equal the prestige of that person’s least noteworthy papers. But the assistant professor in question tended to argue in public with the senior faculty about their research and about their management of the school. Predictably, the senior faculty rejected the tenure case. What transpired stunned me: the assistant professor ended up at a 3rd tier, chronically underfunded public university in a U.S. state in the Deep South consistently ranked either 49th or 50th on most social indicators of well-being.

This was all part and parcel of the evolution of the American university since 1981 toward operating much more as for-profit businesses focused on job training for white collar workers than as sanctuaries where values such as academic integrity and open knowledge creation were among the foundational principles. Within this evolution, universities have slashed the liberal arts and other fields deemed too disconnected from the needs of the workforce (completely in error, I should add – English majors make for excellent workers), and also tried to replace as many tenure-track positions as possible either with term faculty working on fixed contracts or the ultimate harbinger of the fabulous gig economy, the adjunct.

Living and working in the greater Washington, DC region means that there is a huge pool of adjunct faculty willing to work for nearly nothing just to keep a hand in the classroom. I am fortunate not to make a living this way. I teach one course per year at a pay rate that, if pro-rated, is well below what I could earn at the entry level for a bank teller or an insurance adjuster. By comparison, term faculty who are obligated to teach at six courses per academic year are making about twice the rate per course that I am. Many academics reading this column certainly will have experienced the debate over the plight of adjunct faculty who are trying to sustain a living just through teaching.

When tenure-track academic employment began to melt down and universities increasingly switched to term faculty and adjuncts to teach, PhD programs did not systematically reduce their enrollment of new doctoral students. Supply of newly minted doctorates now greatly outstrips demand for new faculty. If you want to experience what the resulting maelstrom is like, I commend to you the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Frankly, the willingness of PhD programs to continue to admit students who are unlikely ever to achieve their intended careers certainly qualifies as unethical and borders on criminal.

I counsel young people not to get doctorates. There are insufficient academic jobs to justify the investment of money, time and effort. There also is the nonacademic employment penalty waiting on the other side. I also have lived this fabulous dream to the limit. Employers have salary bands that require paying PhDs at a higher rate but they doubt they can get sufficient additional productivity above those with a Masters degree to justify the additional expense. I have found that a PhD is an excellent pathway to chronic underemployment for life.

Into this tumultuous mix we throw highly vulnerable faculty, knowing that they could suffer a huge drop in their standard of living and quality of life should they lose their academic positions, up against standards of ethical research conduct. Rampant fraud is the inevitable result of this combination. I cannot fault those academics who cheat to get published. The stakes are too high for honesty. But the growing amount of research misconduct is contributing to the additional decline of higher education as a place where basic research of all types is encouraged, nurtured and protecting from the pressures of immediate economic gratification. It is a destructive positive feedback loop that, if left as is, will continue to erode the higher education sector and destroy what once was a true jewel in the American crown.

So where is public administration amidst this? I know, and the readers of the PA Times know, that the field is just as impacted by the issues raised here as any other field in higher education. I need not pull the data out of PAR to confirm that “p-hacking” is rampant or that other failures to follow the norms of research practices we teach every day also undermine the integrity of public administration. We cannot hope to address this without trying to restore some semblance of sane academic employment opportunities for the young scholars earning PhDs right now.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is adjunct faculty in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. More content is available here.

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