Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Nobel Gasses Leave Me Inert

I'm on the staff at UCSB, and we are supposed to all be elated at the news that the campus, with the annoucement of the Nobel Prize for Economics yesterday, now has 5 profs in 6 years who have been honored with a Nobel.

I'm not elated, however, and not just because I'm bitter that the closest I've come to Sweden are the Swedish pancakes at IHOP.

And it's not just because the Nobel Laureates get reserved parking spots, making it harder for mere staff to park on campus to do their JOBS. That we have to pay for parking at our workplace still smacks of the bad old days of George Pullman and factory towns, if you ask me, pardon my long-term labor perspective.

And it's not just because the Nobels seems so oddly awarded--the last two UCSB profs two win them got theirs for research they did years before, when neither worked at UCSB. It's kind of like the BBWAA suddenly giving Cubbie Greg Maddux a Cy Young for his fine pitching for the Braves in 1993, but I digress.

Or I don't, for another baseball analogy provides me with my true complaint with the glorifying of Nobel Laureates as university superstars. In fantasy baseball, where you often have a limit on how many pretend dollars you can pay to psuedo-purchase your faux-team, one strategy is called Stars & Scrubs. The theory is to pay top dollar for the best in the business, and hope your huge advantage there will allow you to fill out the roster with sub-luminaries. Mr. Bonds, meet St. Rey Ordonez.

It seems to me that universities are busy playing Stars & Scrubs. It actually does mean something that UCSB has lured all these Nobel Laureates to campus--it means they get paid lots of money. And it's not just their salaries, for in the sciences these folks need top-of-the-line labs. They often come with a cadre of graduate students/research assistants/slave labor, who also need support.

That money has to come from somewhere, and it's usually somewhere else in the university's budget. I know, I know--UCSB is a fine research institution, and what these esteemed folks do might make the world a better place. But UCSB is also a school, where learning is supposed to go on. Once you win a Nobel, you don't just get a better parking space, you don't have to park yourself in front of students much, because it's your research that's important. Somebody has to do that teaching you're not doing, and too often that means colleges rely on lecturers, the academic netherworld (when the Catholics got rid of Limbo they actually sold it to academia, where it became the world of the non-tenured teacher). I was a lecturer once (OK, for 13 years at two different schools), and as a lecturer's life went, mine was pretty good. I had full-time jobs at one place of employment. I wasn't a freeway flyer, cobbling a career together out of two courses here, one there, one there. But it still ate at my soul, for it was perfectly clear the big U thought I was imminently replaceable, no matter how good a job I did. And I wasn't alone, for at UCSB close to 50% of all undergraduate classes are taught by lecturers. Too bad the U thinks lecturers might not be worthy of employment here.

So, more Stars mean more Scrubs, means less of a commitment to teaching. Yet tuition certainly doesn't go down. Yet students certainly don't deserve any less.

Those Nobel Prizes sure do make for good marketing, though.


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