Unprofitable Professors Getting Fired

Being a public intellectual doesn't pay.


Being a public intellectual doesn’t pay.

The Nation, “Columbia University Fired Two Eminent Public Intellectuals. Here’s Why It Matters.”

Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, longtime professors at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, learned that they were losing their jobs because they hadn’t brought in enough grant money. Both, ironically, are models for the sort of publicly engaged intellectual Kristof wants to see more of. Vance has done pioneering work on the intersection of gender, health and human rights. “She has been a mentor and a leading influence on generations of scholars as well as activists and practitioners,” says Rebecca Schleifer, the former advocacy director for the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. Hopper, who divides his time between Columbia and the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, is both an advocate for the homeless and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on homelessness. Last year, American Anthropologist ran a piece highlighting his work beyond academia, noting that Hopper “has long urged anthropologists to take part in public debates, to translate ethnographic findings into policy proposals.”

His termination, along with Vance’s, suggests that scholars have good reason not to take this advice. Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent—and professors say that it’s become a hard rule, with less room for the cross-subsidization of those who devote themselves to teaching or whose research isn’t attractive to outside funders. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.

The result is an increasing focus on the bottom line over a broad engagement with social issues. “One of the costs of this push for federal funding is going to be a depoliticization of the scholarship at Mailman,” says a professor there who asked to remain anonymous for fear of administration reprisals. “You can’t do great public health without engaging with politics.”

Michelle Goldberg, the author of the cited piece, concludes that this is “a demonstration of what happens to scholarship and intellectual endeavor when financial concerns trump all else. When money is the most salient measurement in cultural life, we all end up impoverished.” But it’s more complicated than that.

At one level, this simply isn’t surprising. The grant-funded model has been on the rise for decades in some fields. In addition to being a chief way for universities to pay for professorial salaries, research assistants, laboratory facilities and the like but it contributes mightily to institutional prestige.

We have here two great scholars whose greatest impact on their field came a quarter century or more ago and who have of late mostly been teachers and advocates. From the standpoint of society at large or the parents of prospective students, that’s a welcome thing. And, while it’s less true than it was even twenty years ago, it’s still a viable model at most colleges and universities, whether public or private, in America.

At places like Columbia, one of the truly elite schools, not so much. Undergraduate teaching is an afterthought. Producing top flight graduate students is of some value but, frankly, it mostly redounds to the institution that hires them as professors and researchers. No, prestige is mostly measured by the productivity of their faculty in terms of prizes won, grants received, and books and articles published.

Given how few professorships exist at these schools, I’ve got little heartburn with them demanding that their faculty remain productive into their fifties and sixties. I’m sure Vance and Hopper can easily find an endowed chair* somewhere at a more teaching- or public service-oriented institution if they’re tired of the grind.

What I fear isn’t that the ability to raise money is more valued than teaching; one only needs to compare the salaries of professors and fundraisers to know that. Relatedly, while lamentable, I’m not even that concerned that the pressures are for professors to spend most of their time chasing grants and doing research rather than teaching. There are plenty of schools  for students who want a more personal touch; indeed, they vastly outnumber the elite research universities.

No, I worry about the impact on intellectual freedom. While it’s long been true that it’s easier to publish articles related to current fads and trends than those which truly advance the field, at least the decision of what research got done and published was being made by scholars. But, as the pressure to get grant money comes to dominate the process, it means that those who have the money will increasingly decide what research gets done. That’s probably not a big deal when we’re talking about institutions like the NIH and some of the older charitable foundations. But major corporations and ideologically-driven foundations will surely swoop in to fill the demand for grant money. What then?

*UPDATE: Keith Humphreys, a Professor and the Section Director for Mental Health Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, assures me that I’m wrong about this.  Given that he’s not only in the public health field but at an elite institution, I’m sure he’s much more informed on the particulars than I am. Specifically, while there are all manner of “endowed chairs” out there, and I’m probably right that Vance and Hopper could land them, the vast majority of these aren’t truly “endowed.” Most are glorified adjunct positions that come with a title but very little in the way of salary.

FILED UNDER: Education, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Something like this must be what Schumpeter was thinking of. The complaint about these two college professors is that they weren’t effective enough at extracting rents. Government in one form or another is already the greatest employer of people with advanced degrees so, as the primary function of institutions of higher learning increasingly becomes rent-seeking, we shouldn’t be surprised if that becomes the most demanded expertise of those institutions as well.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But major corporations and ideologically-driven foundations will surely swoop in to fill the demand for grant money. What then?

    Well James, they already own the gov’t, the media, and are working on getting the public schools, why not higher education too?

    (I am being only slightly sarcastic with this comment)

  3. al-Ameda says:

    Over the past two decades “publish or perish” has been replaced or supplemented by “make it rain or perish.”

    This is the world we live in now. It is certainly true at many non-profit organizations where there is strong pressure to secure grant-funding for both research and NPO operations, and in many academic departments the host colleges and universities receive and count on grant awards to subsidize a significant portion of department and/or campus-wide operations.

    Contrary to people’s perceptions and common conservative stereotypes the university environment, particularly in departments where research is highly valued and necessary (physics, chemistry, biomedicine, public policy, public health and so on) is a very intense competitive environment.

  4. john personna says:

    Bill Gates came out as a Democrat in a recent interview, supporting top bracket tax rates up to 50%, with the rationale that if you want nice things, you have to pay for them.

    I agree that we can leave aside the elite schools, concentrate on making the state schools good, and paying for them.

    I remain a skeptic that a high percentage need 4 year degrees, but state schools should be good, for the fraction that benefit from them.

  5. steve says:

    Interesting. Professor salaries are coming from grants even more than they used to do, not from tuition, yet tuition continues to rise at above inflation rates. Shoots wholes in the narrative that greedy professors are driving tuition increases.

    Dave- Not sure research money necessarily qualify as rents. Need to compare ot to opportunity costs.


  6. John Burgess says:

    Funny. I wonder what profits the layers of administrators bring in to universities. I’d think their jobs would be on the block, too, but no…

  7. john personna says:
  8. CSK says:

    @John Burgess:

    The administrators who bring in what are known as “major gifts” do, in many cases, corral some significant money.

    The big administrative growth is in the various deans and associate and assistant deans. My school now has a Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, a Dean of Multiculturalism, and a Chief Diversity Officer, all of whom have associates and assistants. Even at a small college with a small endowment, these people are paid well in excess of $120,000 a year.

  9. Dave Schuler says:


    The money was characterized as “grants”; that’s almost certainly government financing. Additionally, the school is a a School of Public Health. For whom do people who receive degrees in Public Health work? I would think primarily for the government at one level or another. Who primarily finances research in Public Health? I would think the government at one level or another.

  10. MBunge says:

    Can elite schools remain that way following this trend to its natural conclusion? I mean, why bother with the university setting if you’re nothing more than another corporate research drone?


  11. Ron Beasley says:

    While this is disturbing I find the general lack of pure scientific research even more disturbing and dangerous. My first engineering job some 35 years ago was for a company called Tektronix, the leading maker of test and measurement equipment. We had a huge campus and one large building housing R&D. We did pure science there and although 90% of it never led to anything of commercial value the 10% that did made the company a lot of money. Even a lot of the 90% was spun off and many of those companies are successful enterprises today. Tek was purchased by a venture capitalist firm and there is no pure science today and very little R&D.
    The old Bell Labs, home of the transistor is gone. The NIH is constantly having it’s budget cut.

  12. Tyrell says:

    @al-Ameda: There is no doubt that the research is big business and big money. But some of the research is highly questionable, and in all honesty ludicrous, such as: the infamous study “Why children fall off of tricycles” and $400, 000 to study affects of Twitter. $600, 000 to Columbia Univ. to study on line dating, $55,000 to Virginia Commonwealth Univ. to study “hookah” smoking. Weird, ridiculous, inexcusable.

  13. Keith Humphreys says:

    I’m sure Vance and Hopper can easily find an endowed chair somewhere at a more teaching- or public service-oriented institution if they’re tired of the grind.

    You are sure based on what James ? Where is the evidence that there are abundant endowed chairs unfilled at such places?

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Keith Humphreys: I’m sure they’re being filled. I’m just arguing that famous scholars that are currently at places like Columbia would be very competitive for those sort of positions. Or, for that matter, as lecturers somewhere.

  15. DrDaveT says:

    There are plenty of schools for students who want a more personal touch; indeed, they vastly outnumber the elite research universities.

    You think? I don’t.

    There are a handful of excellent undergraduate teaching schools, and they are even more competitive for admissions than the top research universities. I’m talking about places like Williams and the Claremont Colleges. But most undergraduate-only schools do not offer better undergraduate education than the top research schools, or even than the top state universities, despite the complete indifference of those universities to quality of undergraduate education.

    Incidentally, I can’t muster too much sympathy for two non-tenured professors who were let go after a long and profitable employment at a prestigious Ivy League university. If Columbia had really valued them, they would have had tenure. If you don’t have tenure, you’re a temp.

  16. superdestroyer says:

    @Keith Humphreys:

    A professor who does not have a grant that comes with him/her is not worth very much. How can a professor in something like Public Heath that is generally programs for graduate students suppose to find a job if he does not bring a grant, cannot fund any graduate students, and cannot do any research.

    What most of the articles concerning budget cuts at NIH is not mentioning is that many research faculty are losing their job because there is no money to fund them.

  17. bill says:

    @john personna: yet gates and his cronies are mega-billionaires who employ armies of accountants and tax lawyers to assure they pay as little as possible. i don’t mind that he donates tons of cash to charity, it’s his money and he has more than enough.
    plus gates & co. don’t really have much that would be taxed as “income” to begin with anymore. the “rich” pay most of the taxes in this country anyway, if they want nice things they buy them- the rest of us have to decide to live within our means, or try to get rich.

    back to the blog,
    if “intellectuals” can’t figure out how to scam more money from “lessor” types then maybe they aren’t so damn smart after all?!

  18. Robin Cohen says:

    Money has already corrupted our politics. Now public health. What next?

  19. john personna says:


    A deeply conflicted response.

  20. john personna says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Two paired articles. First perhaps 85% of research funding is wasted. Second, billionaires increasingly driving choices.

    Given the former, the later might not be so bad.

  21. wr says:

    @James Joyner: Yes, what a glorious future for academia, where brilliant men and women whose work no longer pleases the billionaires who are now allowed to control every aspect of the culture, can seek the same low-paying, no benefits lectureship positions as every newly minted PhD discovering that the universites are wiping out tenured professorships and essentially adoping Walmart employment practices.

    Truly America will not reach its full greatness until every job and profession other than investment banker pays minimum wage. And then the Republicans and “libertarians” can explain how having a minimum wage makes us all lazy and dependent on the government.

  22. wr says:

    @john personna: Sure, because our Captains of Industry never waste money like that corrupt and eeeevil public sector.

  23. john personna says:


    I think it might be more committee v individual.

    We are told DARPA was a great success because individuals were given great power to direct research.

    Sure, it would be nice to refactor US public science, but in the meantime those rich a-holes will make harsh decisions to leverage their funds.

    (I hope you are not defending 85% loss as the model, the standard, the best of all possible research worlds!)

  24. Barry says:

    @Tyrell: “There is no doubt that the research is big business and big money. But some of the research is highly questionable, and in all honesty ludicrous, such as: the infamous study “Why children fall off of tricycles” and $400, 000 to study affects of Twitter. $600, 000 to Columbia Univ. to study on line dating, $55,000 to Virginia Commonwealth Univ. to study “hookah” smoking. Weird, ridiculous, inexcusable. ”

    First, the amounts mentioned pale in relation to what well-connected corporations can get from the government. Second, at least two of those have obvious benefits.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @steve: I think all reasonable analysts admit that the lion’s share of the increase in tuition has gone to pay for more intermediate layers of administration (how many Assistant Deans does a college need and what do they do, anyway?) and much more posh dwellings for those little darlings called students.

    (I thought college life was what toughened one up for learning how to keep the cockroaches out and how to make 50 different dishes out of instant ramen.)

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @john personna: Dude–I remember bitching at one point to my boyfriend–also a physicist–about the difficulties I was having. He sniffed and said: “you’re going to be running up blind alleys 90% of the time. Either get used to it, or get out of research.”

    If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research!

  27. Arcademeer says:

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a department focused on academic research (generating new knowledge) to ask of its faculty to bring in money to do their academic research. There are plenty of job applicants with K-99 awards from the NIH in hand looking to start their work. Why should Columbia turn them away to keep two professors who would rather teach full-time? Surely there are other universities that will welcome them with open arms, but I think it is silly for Columbia to not stock themselves full of grant-funded academics when that opportunity is available to them.

  28. Ann Hilliard says:

    So…I quickly checked the NIH website, clicked the tab marked “budget” and took a look at “appropriation history.” Of the 14 divisions of NIH, all but one, the AIDS/HIV/Malaria/TB fund, were higher in 2012 than in 2008. A helpful foot note explained that funds were transferred to another government agency. But NIH still had lots of money in that category too. Want to bet most or all divisions are also higher in 2014 than in 2012? So much for the “NIH budget cuts.”