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College and the Recession

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At Sarah Lawrence, the college where I teach, our endowment has been hard hit by the recession, and so have the incomes of our students' parents. We have, as a result, done the opposite of what we would do if we were a business bent on making a profit. We have increased the financial aid we provide our students--by a whopping 19 percent this fall.

It has been a strain making such a commitment. We have not only put off building projects and repairs. We have had to economize on the basics. We have even frozen faculty salaries. This has been a hardship, but it is hardship that, like the postponement of sabbaticals, has been accepted as necessary by myself and most of my colleagues.

We are not unique in believing this is a time for sacrifice. At colleges across the country, faculty have acted the opposite of executives in the banking industry, who have insisted they deserve bonuses despite benefiting from a government bailout.

We don't think we should be getting gold stars for behaving as we have. We have done the right thing. In our case we have even had the example of the president of our college deciding that, as the administrator making the most money, she ought to take a salary cut rather than a salary freeze.

But what is infuriating to us is a small, but influential, group of education critics who contend that a key reason higher education is so expensive is because of faculty preoccupied with their own research and careers. John Zmirak, the editor-in-chief of Collegeguide.com insists that at the root of the college cost problem are self-serving professors uninterested in giving survey or composition courses because such courses won't help them get tenure. In essays for the "Chronicle of Higher Education" and the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, Professor Mark Bauerlein, the author of "The Dumbest Generation" has made the same point even more emphatically.

Nobody would deny there are faculty who put their own interests ahead of those of their students. But when such selfish behavior is considered typical, I wonder what educational planet the critics who make this charge are living on. It does not square with my experience or that of friends who teach at other colleges.

At my school, for example, senior faculty regularly give introductory courses for first-year students. In these courses we meet with our first-years in half-hour individual conferences every week in addition to our regular class meetings. After our students' first year, the individual conferences with them change to every other week meetings in addition to regular classes, but for seniors doing a thesis, the standard meeting goes back to once a week.

Nor is the labor-intensive nature of our enterprise just a matter of long hours. It is also a matter of taking personal responsibility for our courses. We don't use teaching assistants to save ourselves the burden of marking papers. We grade all the papers we assign, even in lecture courses, and when it comes to awarding tenure, we look at how a colleague teaches. We visit a new colleague's classes, and we read the faculty evaluations our students make at the end of every year. A distinguished publishing record is a plus in our eyes, but it won't lead to tenure if you fail in the classroom.

Parents who can afford our college pay a hefty sum for the kind of teaching we do, and in turn, we make sure we provide lots of scholarship aid to students whose parents cannot afford us. Over 50 percent of our students receive grants, and the average amount we provide them adds up to more than half the cost of tuition, room, and board. As a result, our high tuition doesn't end up coming back to us as profit. It ends up allowing us to be diverse. Like many private schools, we are, when our aid package is compiled, often easier for an individual student to afford than a state school.

How long will colleges across the country like mine be forced to make sacrifices and cutbacks? As long as the recession lasts, I fear. In the meantime I am thankful that we have figured out a way to reduce the financial burden we put on our most vulnerable students, and I wonder what is driving the attacks that put so much blame on faculty for college being as expensive as it is today. Are these attacks really a covert assault on tenure? On sabbaticals? On the value of serious research?

I don't have the answer. But I do know the attacks are a caricature. They make it seem as if countless colleges and universities across America really don't deserve support because long before the recession began, they were asking for trouble.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and with Michael Walzer co-editor of the forthcoming Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.