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The Rise and Fall of the Ivory Tower
Sorel Reisman
JUL 02, 2013 14:14 PM
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Welcome to "Musings from the Ivory Tower," my blog that will appear regularly in Computing Now — or at least as regularly as I feel compelled to rant about something new that catches my eye or ruins my day.

This blog has been in development since I first proposed it to the editors of Computing Now and Computer magazine back in January of this year. After we agreed that the blog would be cross-listed between the two publications, I was challenged to find a title for it. After considerable debate about what would be an appropriate or inappropriate title, we finally agreed on this one. I had planned to use the word "droppings" in place of "musings," but it was pointed out to me that, despite the accuracy of the term for the kinds of things I intend to blog about, some might find the title offensive. So don't be surprised if, from time to time, you think the content of my "musings" does approach the scatological inference of the word "droppings."

Once I announced the blog title, some thought I should clarify what I mean by the "Ivory Tower." Although it's pretty obvious to me what the Ivory Tower is, for the benefit of others, I decided to see what Wikipedia had to say about it:

The term Ivory Tower...has been used to designate a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. As such, it usually carries pejorative connotations of a wilful (sic) disconnect from the everyday world;esoteric, over-specialized, or even useless research; and academic elitism, if not outright condescension. (Note that the spelling error is not mine but the underlining is.)

It's pretty clear that this definition is not very complementary toward "the world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits" — usually thought to be higher education.

In our cynical 21st-century world, it's hard to argue that these Ivory Tower places are sometimes in fact, truly "disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life." Here's an example I read about last week in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/18/nyregion/nyu-gives-stars-loans-for-summer-homes.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). The article describes how the university, which has "one of the most indebted student bodies in the country," offers forgivable multimillion dollar loans as executive perks to some administrators and a few faculty so that they can buy second or vacation homes. And this is taking place in a time when the US Congress is debating another contentious bill regarding yet another financial "bubble" — this one related to student loans. (Now there's a disconnect if ever I saw one!)

On the other hand, it's not always universities that characterize the worst aspects of the Ivory Tower. Consider the State of California where, despite regular increases in student tuition and also growth in the size of the student body over the last six years, faculty have not received a single penny of salary increases. Nonetheless, state politicians recently voted themselves a 5 percent salary increase, claiming this will begin to compensate them for the brief furlough that they endured a couple of years ago. They have conveniently neglected to remember that almost all state employees in California, including faculty — and despite no salary increases — were also subjected to a similar and lengthier furlough than those poor politicians who really deserved an even longer furlough. Who would have noticed their absence? And despite the continued increased demand for classes throughout the state, there is no prospect for compensation increases in 2013–14.

But the good news is that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3927), US states are "spending $2,353 — or 28% less per student — on higher education, nationwide, in the current 2013 fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit." Why is this good news? Because it's clear that higher education administrators are finding ways (for higher education faculty) to do more with less. And according to Inside Higher Ed, here's how:

As recently as 1969, in the US, 78 percent of instructional staff comprised tenured or tenure-track professors, with adjunct faculty making up the rest ... By 2009, the figures had nearly flipped, with a third of faculty tenured or on the tenure track and two-thirds ineligible for tenure. Of those non-tenure-track positions, just 19% were full-time. (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/09/adjunct-leaders-consider-strategies-force-change#ixzz2X5v9mtcM).

And we know that it's a lot less expensive to pay adjunct faculty to teach a course than it is to pay a tenured or tenure track faculty member. But more importantly — especially as it relates to IEEE and the CS — non-tenure track faculty usually have no research responsibilities at their institutions. Their contract renewals are dependent almost exclusively on the quality of their instruction, however that's measured. As the number of tenure track faculty decreases, the number of researchers in higher education will also decrease, hence decreasing the demand for the kinds of publications — online and/or print — upon which IEEE and the CS have built much of their reputation.

In the past month or so, IEEE created an ad hoc task force to brainstorm the future nature of publishing, especially as that future relates to social networking. At first blush, it may seem that the demographic changes I described taking place in the Ivory Tower are unrelated to social networking matters, but, as I'll explore in future blog posts, there may be many matters that are, in fact, closely related.

So, let me hear your thoughts about what I've tossed out for consideration using the (social networking) threaded discussion that accompanies this blog. If you agree with me, let me know. If you disagree, let me know that too so that I can tell you why you're wrong! Or, if you have other thoughts or rants of your own, whether or not they border on the scatological, don't be afraid to share. We have great editors who can redact content with the best of them!

Till next time, so long from the Ivory Tower.

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About Sorel Reisman

Sorel Reisman

Sorel Reisman is the Managing Director of the international consortium, MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) in the California State University Office of the Chancellor, Professor of Information Systems at California State University, Fullerton, President Emeritus (2011) of the IEEE Computer Society, editor-in-chief of the IEEE eLearning Products and Services Committee, and member of the board of the Open Courseware Consortium (OCWC).

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Computing Now Blogs
Big Data Trends: by David Feinleib
Enterprise Thinking: by Josh Greenbaum
A Cloud Blog: by Irena Bojanova
Mind the Cloud: by Thoran Rodrigues
Musings from the Ivory Tower: by Sorel Reisman
No Batteries Required: by Ray Kahn
Out of Print: by Evan Butterfield
Software Technologies: by Christof Ebert