According to a psychiatrist friend of mine, you can judge the state of knowledge in a field by the number of books it produces. Areas in which no one has a clue about what really works -- child rearing is one example he gave -- spawn new tomes in profusion as authors try out ideas. In fields that are well understood, on the other hand -- the physiology of the liver was his example -- one or two standard, widely recognized reference volumes suffice to explain everything anyone might reasonably want to know.

According to this theory, American universities must be in a parlous and confused state, because studies on what ails academe are appearing at a brisk pace, with more in the offing. But you don't need publishers' catalogs to guess that something -- in fact, several things -- must be gravely amiss in U.S. higher education. Even a vague familiarity with the academic job market, the plunge in institutional endowments, the funding battles in state legislatures, or students' and families' spiraling indebtedness would tell you that.

The recent spate of titles on academia's ailments supports my friend's theory in one other way: a wide disparity of opinion on the nature, sources, and solutions to current problems. The theory breaks down in only one intriguing respect. From amid the variety of approaches and opinions rises a rough consensus about traditional tenure: It has to go. Books differ on what should replace it, but there appears to be widespread agreement that lifetime employment guarantees for a small segment of university workers is no good for students, aspiring younger academics, university finances, scholarship and research, or anything but the privileged minority who hold these ironclad sinecures.

Letting go of tenure

Two of this season's more widely mentioned tomes expressing this view are by prominent academics -- current or former tenured professors -- writing for the general public. Political scientist Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus of Queens College and formerly of Cornell University, teamed up with The New York Times journalist Claudia Dreifus to produce Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing our Kids -- And What We Can do About It. Mark C. Taylor, who chairs the religion department at Columbia University, offers Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities .

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

Hacker and Dreifus focus on the failures of undergraduate instruction to maintain standards, provide high-quality teaching, adapt to the needs of a changing student body, and keep costs under control. The question mark in their title, they say, does "double-duty," expressing their doubts that the glorified vocational training offered on many campuses truly counts as education, and that much of it rises to a level that can "reasonably be called higher." Undergraduate studies lie beyond this column's purview, but Hacker and Dreifus's examination of tenure's effects is highly relevant. Rather than protecting faculty members' academic freedom, as the system's proponents claim, permanent appointments safeguard the income of "a percentage of professors … who haven't had an original idea in years, and who put forth the bare minimum of effort in their classes," they quote James Garland, former president of Miami University in Ohio, as saying. And, by indefinitely tying up major chunks of university budgets, the system condemns the much larger -- and rapidly growing -- number of non–tenure track academics to working for pittances. Providing "lifetime guarantees" for some "subverts the very enterprise [that faculty members] are supposed to serve," Hacker and Dreifus write.

Taylor takes a broader institutional view. American higher education, he writes, is in the grip of a debt-financed bubble that, like the disastrous debt-based housing bubble that brought down the U.S. economy, will ultimately burst, imperiling the financial stability and even the survival of numerous institutions. He also examines other important issues, including the "serious ethical questions [raised by] encouraging young people to pursue graduate work in many fields" that lack "realistic opportunities for achieving desired career outcomes."

A big reason for the lack of opportunities, Taylor concurs, is the dead hand of tenure. Forty years on campuses have convinced him that the argument for tenure as protector of academic freedom "is completely without merit. … I cannot think of a single person who was more willing to express his or her views after tenure than before." The actual motives "behind the impassioned defense of tenure" are "less noble," he argues. Far better, he suggests, would be a system of time-limited, renewable contracts, which would permit much more flexibility in curriculum, free up funds to offer good opportunities to more young scholars, and provide incentives for continued high achievement throughout an academic career.

Globalization of academe

The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World takes a somewhat different approach to the malaise on campuses, viewing universities from an international rather than a specifically American perspective and paying less attention to their internal dynamics. Its author, Ben Wildavsky, has been, among other prominent journalistic gigs, education editor at U.S. News & World Report, purveyor of highly influential and controversial college rankings. He examines in detail an important trend that the other books consider mostly in passing: the growing internationalization of higher education and research in this country and abroad.

Wildavsky views the globalization of academe -- including the rise of China and India as rivals to U.S. academic supremacy -- as pretty much an unalloyed good. He briefly acknowledges that the process does produce some "losers" but does not mention the corrosive effect that low-priced brainpower imported on temporary visas has had on the motivation and prospects of young Americans who desire careers in academic science. "The globalization of higher education … should be embraced, not feared," he writes. "That's because the ever-more-open flow of people and knowledge is good for other nations and good for the United States."

The benefits outweigh the dislocations because, he argues, massive international movements in academe spread ideas, which, of course, everyone can agree is desirable. But he gives scant attention to the fact that research, at least in the sciences, produces, along with new concepts and opportunities for academic prestige, intellectual property potentially worth vast amounts of money and capable of forming the basis of large industries. The U.S. government pours scores of billions of dollars into research each year not because the taxpayers are intellectually curious but because they want and expect tangible benefits such as economic growth, medical progress, and national defense. The crucial role of innovation in producing prosperity and security, therefore, makes control of discovery vital to the wealth and security of nations.

Chasing discoveries

How the disposition of such lucrative intellectual property actually works gets a close look in Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love, and the Ivory Tower , the acidly satiric first novel of another veteran journalist, Daniel S. Greenberg. You probably won't mistake Greenberg's workmanlike prose for that of a literary master of the academic comedy such as the peerless David Lodge. But Greenberg's novel dismembers science departments in much the same way that Lodge's celebrated university trilogy does the job on English departments. And few people know more about the politics and finances of bigtime academic research than Dan Greenberg, who has covered science policy for decades in Science, The Washington Post, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, his own highly regarded Science & Government Report, and respected nonfiction books. Perhaps most memorably, over 40 years ago he introduced the academic world (in the pages of Science) to that paragon of research dexterity, the fictional Dr. Grant Swinger, director of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds.

Tech Transfer offers no explicit policy analyses or proposals, but a number of the characters occupy very privileged academic posts, and Greenberg's views on the protections they enjoy and the services they render in return are pretty apparent. He brings all that he knows, plus a nasty wit, to the adventures of Collin "Collie" Marson, Ph.D., an erstwhile postdoc whose own research career foundered on the inadvertent discovery that the scientific eminence of his mentor, a major academic operator named Elias Fenster, rests on a less-than-flawless analysis of certain causal factors. Now Collie is in recovery from grad school-postdoc penury, earning a salary beyond previous dreams of avarice as a scout for venture capitalist Lou Crowley. Specifically, Collie is responsible for nosing out bankable research projects, mainly at his grad school and postdoc alma mater, Kershaw University, a prestigious institution purportedly located somewhere between the campuses of Columbia and NYU.

Something hot, and potentially very profitable, is cooking in a secret lab run by reputed genius Professor Max Brusulowitz. This mystery project interests not only Collie and Lou but also Fenster, the U.S. Army, the National Institutes of Health, Kershaw's new president, and sundry others whose machinations combine into a plot that conveys, beneath the often broad humor, a critique of big-money academe as detailed as those in the other books.

Tech Transfer "reveals far too much about how the science system really works," proclaims a cover blurb from the great Dr. Swinger himself. In this, as in so much else concerning academe, Grant is right on the money.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.