“Publish or Perish” Isn’t So Bad

Winston Churchill famously quipped that democracy is the worst of governmental systems—except for all the others that have been tried. I’m inclined to think much the same can be said about the “publish or perish” system for choosing college faculty.

Legend has it that in the academic dark ages, brilliant instructors were thrown out of work because they failed to produce books and articles on route to tenure. Instructors who loved teaching were diverted from their true passion by demands that they publish something—anything—providing it was accepted by a publishing house or refereed journal before the author came up for tenure.

The same legend would have us believe that most of what got published in the effort to please tenure and promotion committees was worthless. It represented wasted time that could otherwise have been spent ministering to students and perhaps holding longer office hours for them.

My own view is that for all its occasional abuses, the old “publish or perish” position had a great deal going for it, and especially when measured against the alternatives.

In more than forty years of college teaching, I only came across one case of a truly gifted teacher being denied tenure at a first-rate university because of his failure to publish sufficiently. In the mid-1960s, when I was a graduate student at Yale, an outstanding teacher of philosophy, Richard Bernstein, was denied tenure because he could not show the requisite publications.

His students then demonstrated in front of the Yale Graduate Hall bearing signs with the question: “How many books did Socrates write?” Bernstein went on to have a distinguished career at Haverford College and published several books after he left Yale. Still, the question raised by his students at requires an answer and it is this: “Socrates did not come up for tenure at Yale.”

Making faculty engage in research and produce a finished, publishable product is good professional discipline. It shows that someone who engages in college teaching is more than a glorified primary or secondary school teacher. He or she is taking another step upward on the road to becoming a bearer of higher education.

Such discipline requires concentration and in this case excludes the possibility of college instructors getting tenure or promotion simply because they receive good “evals” from the kids and because they arrive at faculty meetings on time.

Most importantly, I can see no reasonable alternative to what has been mocked as “publish or perish” as a component in a tenure decision. The fixation I have observed on being an “effective’ teacher is a slippery slope leading nowhere but to a bigger popularity contest among instructors.

Student evaluations tell us nothing more than whether instructors come to class, speak audibly and are generally coherent. Since those evaluations that are notably expansive typically come from angry students, it may be necessary to make allowance for this mood factor as well as for the limited knowledge of the person making the judgment.

We also now have “scientific” approaches to evaluating teaching performance that take into account lists of class assignments and lesson plans. By the time I retired four years ago, young faculty were also obliged to attend seminars on how to make their teaching “delivery system” more student-friendly. Those seminars were almost always arranged by older faculty and administrators who had never done any research, other than what they euphemistically called “teaching research,” which meant preparing their classroom presentations.

Although the onetime emphasis in some universities on research and publication may have been excessive, the refusal to weigh these factors as significant criteria for academic advancement has engendered even worse results. It has encouraged pandering to students, particularly at schools that are concerned for financial reasons with “student retention,” and it has created a cottage industry in learning devices to help classes absorb material they are usually too shiftless to study on their own time.

An additional side-effect of dispensing with serious research requirements at colleges, and one that I have seen repeatedly, has been the tyranny of the non-scholars who go into college politics. Faculty who have lots of time on their hands—time that their counterparts elsewhere turn into developing research records—find other ways to advance themselves. They often play politics nonstop and cultivate student support as a way of increasing leverage among their peers.  

Such non-scholars also have a way of landing on appointment committees, where they are in a position to influence the choice of college presidents and provosts. 

It is delusional to believe that the non-scholars spend their professional lives expanding their knowledge of the fields in which they teach. Rather, they personify the danger that the Puritans warned against when they spoke about “idle hands.”

For those who complain about “all the junk that gets published,” my response is I’ve been turned off less by this excess than by seeing what academic life has become in the absence of publishing requirements.

I have sat on tenure committees, almost in disbelief, as I noticed how arbitrary and fuzzy the requirements had become in the absence of solid evidence of research. In one case, an associate professor who had published nothing but wanted to be promoted, produced caseloads of conference programs to show that he was “professionally active.”

“Active in what?” I asked myself.  

I have also noticed the pampering of students and the expansion of make-work committees that are the trademarks of non-publishing instructors. Why are those “degradations” of higher education worse than the abuses that the “publish or perish?” regime supposedly gave rise to?

The cases of worthy teachers being dismissed under the latter have been greatly exaggerated, but the problems caused by the non-publishing college instructor who have twisted tenure and promotion requirements to their advantage are much in evidence.