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Public Administration Scholarship and the Epidemic of Academic Fraud and Dishonesty Part 6 – Rewarding the Content Creators

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

By Erik Devereux
March 22, 2024

This column is the sixth and final in a series on the epidemic of academic fraud and dishonesty across the social sciences that encompasses public administration (the first column; the second column ; the third column; the fourth column; the fifth column). Whether or not university faculty identify this way, they are among the categories of “content creators” who increasingly find themselves under-compensated and under severe professional stress while their industries appear to be banking record profits and/or paying high salaries to a few top administrators (and football coaches). This phenomenon of the Internet age, perhaps best represented by the negative impact of music streaming on the incomes of professional musicians, is severely damaging those who ostensibly are the “crown jewels” of academe—the faculty. Rather than leading their universities, the faculty often have been reduced to figuratively caged birds, admired for their plumage and songs but otherwise captive and powerless.

To get a very thorough look at how absurd all of this has become in academe, I recommend a careful reading of a recent New York Times article on the financial imbroglios of the University of Arizona. Faced with an unexpected nearly $200 million deficit, Arizona is pondering many cuts to “front line” workers including the lowest paid faculty—this after furloughs and other hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also possibly on the chopping block are the positions of, “dozens of vice presidents,” each pulling down far more annual compensation than the most prominent of the faculty responsible for the research and teaching enterprise.

Arizona represents the incredible growth of the administrations of America’s colleges and universities during my three decades in the workforce. You would be hard pressed to find any “brick and mortar” example in academe in which the content-creating line workers (the faculty) outnumber the non-teaching, non-researching administrators. This transformation—or bureaucratic bloat if that better displays the situation—has placed downward pressure on faculty salaries, resulted in the elimination of tenure track positions, and created the exact work environment that incentivizes fraud and dishonesty in research.

A key point here is that many of the administrators responsible for assessing faculty performance simply cannot evaluate the quality of teaching or research. What they can do is to evaluate if either sells well in the public sphere. This is another way to pave the road to fraud and dishonesty because quality teaching and quality research may not have much “curb appeal” especially at the initial time of delivery. If making university teaching and research look immediately sleek, slim and gorgeous are your objectives, do not be surprised if an investigation later reveals it was all a lie.

How did we get here? Sadly, often the faculty assisted their displacement by willingly giving up myriads of time-consuming administrative responsibilities to a burgeoning, self-sustaining bureaucracy. Of course people who earned PhDs do not want to spend many precious hours per week attending committee meetings, deciding on nuts-and-bolts management issues or otherwise taking time away from the laboratory, library or classroom. But the longer term consequence of ceding authority is where the University of Arizona finds itself today.

There is an even darker side to this mess that is well presented in the person of E. Gordon Gee, the current president of West Virginia University and a former president of other huge public institutions such as Brown, Vanderbilt and The Ohio State University. Dr. Gee has made a career out of “fixing” the financial problems of universities by gutting entire swaths of departments—most often in the liberal arts and humanities—under the flag of making a college education directly related to employment. This entire situation is analogous to a business that sells cigarettes at one door and chemotherapy for lung cancer at the other door. Instead of proposing a significant reduction in the administrative overhead of universities, Dr. Gee has terminated the employment of hundreds of PhDs during his career as a “fixer.” As I write this, most likely Dr. Gee is considering an offer from another major university (who knows—why not Arizona?) to work his magic again somewhere else.

The irony should not escape that among employers’ frequent complaints about recently hired college graduates is that they cannot write. Wow.

The academic research enterprise simply cannot survive amidst all this in a way that serves the broader public interest. This series has explained how we got to this sad state of affairs, why it has encouraged academic fraud and dishonesty and otherwise made it increasingly unwise for young people today to even consider earning a PhD. Can this all be repaired? Certainly. Will that occur rationally, carefully and incrementally? Certainly not. It may require a series of crises to motivate real reforms that put the faculty back in control of their universities, restore a sane working environment and otherwise prevent the best minds of our generation from being destroyed by this madness (Note to Bob and Alan: please forgive me for that.)

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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