Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Public Scholars in Public Universities

CUNY Graduate Center
I really like Abraham Gutman's recent short essay, "Practicing What He Preaches," about economist Paul Krugman's decision to leave Princeton for CUNY Graduate Center. (He also mentions Cathy Davidson's recent decision to leave Duke for CUNY).

Krugman, as many of you know, is a scholar of income inequality.

Gutman is an undergraduate economics major at CUNY who is thrilled that Krugman is making the move.

Here is a taste of his piece:

In his writings, Krugman has frequently discussed inequality and the importance of regulation on the market to reduce inequality. But what about the inequalities students face when they choose their university? I frequently hear great scholars praise public universities such as CUNY for allowing access to higher education to many New Yorkers who would not have otherwise been able to fund their education, but many of these scholars choose their intellectual homes to be the same private universities that cause most of their students to end their undergraduate education with huge levels of student debt. Elite private universities offer professors resources and name recognition, which can help them pursue their ambitions.  Of course, private universities also on average pay much more than public universities, even top public universities.
This is a very mixed message. On one hand, these scholars say that the government should invest more in public institutions so more young people can get quality higher education. On the other hand, by choosing to work in private institutions they send the message that state universities are not good enough for them. Too many students at public universities, including those who are passionate about social equity and social good, dream about Ivy League graduate schools, or – for those seeking careers in academe – jobs at the kinds of places that Professors Krugman and Davidson are leaving. These universities are the homes of their intellectual heroes.
I am sure that critics of Gutman's piece will say that Krugman will probably be making more money at CUNY than at Princeton. But before one runs too far with this criticism, remember that Krugman is a Nobel laureate who probably makes more money a year on books and speaking engagements than his old salary and new salary combined.

Krugman's move should force us to revisit the ongoing discussion, began after the publication of the recent Nicholas Kristof article, about what it means for a scholar to engage the public. Shouldn't public intellectuals spend time with the general public?  (I am not convinced that an Ivy League professor encounters the general public in his or her classroom).  Or should public intellectuals just write for popular venues from the isolation of the ivory tower, casting their pearls of wisdom to the millions and millions who read The London Review of Books. (I still chuckle at the way so many critics of Krtistof's op-ed referenced their publications in The New York Review of Books and similar periodicals to show that they were speaking to public audiences).

It does not look like Krugman will be teaching undergraduates at CUNY, but he will certainly be more connected to the diversity of everyday life in New York than in Princeton.  (I am curious--would we have the same praise for Krugman, or anyone else for that matter, if he left Princeton for a job at a rural state school or a state school in a small city?)

Most of us will never be faced with the choices (Princeton or CUNY Graudate Center?) that Krugman gets to make.  But I often wonder whether professors at private liberal arts schools might be more effective as public scholars in public universities where most of the students can't afford the 40K-50K a year price tag.

Our understanding of the academic vocation is so often shaped by the college or university in which we work.  Tonight I will give some thought to how my academic life might be different if I worked at a public university instead of at an expensive church-related liberal arts college.

(Of course, this whole discussion is complicated further by the fact that my understanding of the academic calling is directly connected to my religious faith and my belief in the mission of church-related colleges).

Perhaps this is all on my mind because I have been corresponding with prospective Messiah College history majors who have been accepted to Messiah and would love to come (and I would love to have them), but they just can't afford it.

Thanks for listening to these ramblings.  Thoughts?