Friday, March 20, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW's Slide Is About More Than Money

Special To The Times

AS president of the University of Washington, Richard L. McCormick maintains that its erosion, recently symbolized by the departure of Richard White, is due principally to the lack of funding ("Richard White's departure a sober warning for UW," March 6). As usual, that is barely half the story. The deeper, more troubling problems are not just about "the money." Too often, the university artfully uses funding as a perennial disguise, evading public scrutiny of the faculty's near total demoralization.

To be sure, Richard White deserves President McCormick's effusive words of praise. But White has hardly been the university's only distinguished, path-breaking scholar in the field of Western history. Nor is he the only popular teacher who, in Dr. McCormick's view, makes American history "vivid, troubling, exciting, revelatory."

Therein lies the fundamental problem - the implication that other faculty are less important because they are not similarly about to bolt the institution.

I, too, was a member of the History Department between 1980 and 1987. Unlike Richard White, however, I did not have a counter offer from another prestigious university. More critically, I was untenured. Consequently, I discovered how quickly my talents were devalued without the protection of the marketplace. Of the five universities that molded my academic career, the University of Washington was the only one that purposely (and I do mean deliberately) downgraded my achievements and contributions.

Historically, scholarship has been competitive, yes, but even more it has meant the pursuit and teaching of lifelong passions. The marketplace is divide and conquer - who gets to be on top. Consequently, the university withholds salary and promotion as if they were a club. It insists that any failure to excite "the market" is irrefutable evidence you have failed as a scholar and teacher, as well.

Not surprisingly, faculty come away feeling miserable - beaten down -rather than charitable or optimistic. Indeed, the more critical point Dr. McCormick might have raised is why no amount of money - by itself - will ever solve this problem.

A system that works better for everyone is the University of California's, linking salary and promotion to stable, predictable steps. Professional expectations are clearly defined, and they hold equitably for one and all. There is no way to deny someone's achievements, regardless of the marketplace. Contrast that with the University of Washington, where administrators and department heads still largely make up the rules as they go along.

Ultimately, it is the teaching that really suffers. For example, consider all the part-time teaching done by doctoral students and recent graduates on minimal salary and few benefits. Where indeed are the "star" professors you sent your sons and daughters off to hear? Not surprisingly, many feel forced to dodge teaching as much as possible, lest they forfeit their reputations - their marketability. Here especially, rather than allow adequate time for student contact, the temptation is to buy everyone off simply by awarding higher grades.

It is the marketplace run amok. When the Huskies take the field, they are really first-string players, are they not? In classroom after classroom, the university barely teaches off the bench. Why? Because it is cheaper than paying senior faculty, but also because junior faculty have less incentive to teach, as well. In the marketplace, it is still publish or perish - not teach or perish - despite the constancy of official denials meant to pacify anxious parents.

Accordingly, my teaching career ended at the University of Washington, much as Richard White's is ending now. Of course, mine ended without the official remorse, since no "peer institution" had apparently demanded - again using Dr. McCormick's words - my experience as a "research entrepreneur."

It is one heck of a way to stay on top - berating, systematically, anyone deemed less than market worthy. Which is why the university is not on top; greatness rests on loyalty to teaching as well as research funding. Indeed, where again would the additional funding go, if not still to advance the administration's latest, capricious definition of what stands highest in the marketplace?

Yes, fault the Legislature, too, for allowing such abuses to continue. Ultimately, however, the university makes the call. Administrators prefer the system the way it is, since it maintains their personal status, salaries and control. Here again, how is it that their ranks perpetually increase while permanent faculty are barely staying even?

Enough of all the lip service; let's be honest for a change. If the university were serious about reform, it might begin by praising every faculty member, not just the Richard Whites. "Thank you" doesn't pay the bills, but for me, too, it would have been a start.

Now let's talk about more funding, using it foremost to address and eliminate the inequities. Make expectations fair, impartial, and above all, reasonable and predictable. Only then will increased funding truly make a difference in the classroom. Only then will we finally get beyond "the money thing" to what even a research university can and should be all about.

A Seattle author, Alfred Runte specializes in American environmental history, with an emphasis on the national parks and conservation.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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