The Free-Lance Professor

Publius Audax, a professor at a Texas university (who writes under a pseudonym), argues that universities need to adopt an entrepreneurial model.  In his plan, instructors would receive only basic salary and benefits; beyond that, their compensation would depend on how many students they could attract.

This is a great idea. There is certainly nothing wrong—and much right—with the idea of professors competing for students. As the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek observed, competition is a discovery process, and competition among professors for students would result in the discovery of the best ways of teaching them.

But Publius Audax does not go far enough. His competition would occur within the confines of today’s colleges and universities.

Under his proposal, professors would still be selected in the same ways. Professors already in the departments would choose who they think will “fit in,” by whatever criteria they deem appropriate.

The result, which we have today, is that departments become homogeneous in thought, ideas, and worldview. Ideas are not challenged, leading to intellectual stagnation. It is easier to just surround yourself with people who agree with you, even if, as an intellectual, you are supposed to be more interested in uncovering truth than in being intellectually comfortable. Yes, scholars are only human, and we end up with politically motivated selection and the elimination of broad swathes of valuable education.

Such selection is less problematic among the hard sciences, but the humane sciences and humanities all too often have political elements in their selective processes. They can range from outright political selection to more subtle neglect.

What humanities department is going to hire someone whose scholarly papers and conferences include the works of economists Thomas Sowell or Milton Friedman? Who will hire a psychologist influenced by Clare Graves? (Graves’ work on the continued development of adult psychology was path-breaking, consistent with the current emerging paradigm of emergence, complexity, and systems science—but almost completely ignored by the mainstream.)

If we really want to improve higher education, we need a way to take the selection of professors out of the hands of one’s colleagues.

One way is through allowing professors to work free-lance. Let me use myself as an example to show how this could work. I have a unique educational background and unusual scholarly interests. I am interested in using Austrian economics, a theoretical tradition in economics that emphasizes the understanding that the economy is a complex, self-organizing process, to understand literature and literary production. Most of my scholarly papers and conferences involve the work of F. A. Hayek. I am also interested in evolutionary approaches to understanding literature.

With my undergraduate degree in recombinant gene technology, two years of graduate school in molecular biology, a master’s in English, and a Ph.D. in the humanities, I am well educated in both biology and English, and thus can teach classes in evolutionary approaches to literature. But many humanities departments generally do not consider Darwinian approaches—which involve the use of evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and cognitive science to understand literature—to be “legitimate.”

Few universities offer such classes, even though the demand is probably there. If I were allowed to be a free-lance professor, opportunities for such students would immediately open up.

There is precedent for free-lance professors. Adam Smith observed in “Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth” (in the Wealth of Nations, Book V, Part I, Article 2) that professors paid by their students taught more effectively than tenured university professors. For a professor who received most of his money directly from students,

reputation in his profession is still of some importance to him, and he still has some dependency upon the affection, gratitude, and favourable report of those who have attended upon his instructions; and these favourable sentiments he is likely to gain in no way so well as by deserving them, that is, by the abilities and diligence by which he discharges every part of his duty.

In other words, he will be a good teacher because his livelihood depends on it. In contrast, “[i]n other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary consists of the whole of the revenue which he derives from his office.”  The result is that the professor does not have an incentive to work hard at being a good teacher. His indolence does not have to be conscious; it can be a result of the prevailing attitude in the department, where the professors are “all very indulgent to one another.”

But imagine if every person who graduated with a Ph.D. were also granted the ability to give certificates of credit to students that could be used at any accredited college or university. Professors could advertise classes, arrange with students for places to meet, and teach those classes. Upon completion, the students would receive their certificates, which could be used as credit toward their degrees. Professors could arrange with universities to hold the classes on campus, with either a small charge for the students for the convenience, or the professors themselves could be charged for renting the classroom. Or classes could be held in any number of other places, such as libraries, etc.

If such a professor turned out to be very popular, attracting many students, it would make sense for universities and colleges to offer him or her a permanent position. The universities then would be responding to the market for the kinds of education students want.

Students who truly want to learn would search out the best, most challenging professors who are teaching what they want to learn. If you want to learn about how evolution can help you understand literature, come to me. If you want to learn how Austrian economics can help you understand literature and literary production, come to me. If you want to learn how to write formalist poetry and verse plays, come to me.

Except that you can’t come to me, because I am not working at a college or university, and there is no such program to allow for professorial entrepreneurship, including free-lance professors. If you do come to me, about all I can offer you is an informal discussion group, free of charge, that doesn’t count for college credit.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the Internet is beginning to provide such opportunities. Places like StraighterLine are beginning to offer free-lance classes. Right now they are offering just the basics, but one can imagine that over time professors would offer more advanced courses and unique approaches could find a home, making available a wider, more diverse education. The institutions we have aren’t carved in stone—they can change. Let us institutionalize the lifestyle of Socrates.