Washington — At a time when great attention is being paid to the needs and conditions of America's public school teachers, the situation of a different kind of teacher and teaching profession is beginning to quietly emerge -- that of the college teacher. There is a striking parallel in the reported conditions confronted by the two different categories of teacher. Both groups face projected shortages of teachers in the 1990s, declining interest in teaching as the career choice of current students, and a low pay scale and poor workplace conditions.
Because public perception of the college academic life is wrapped up in notions of a professoriate ``lying in a hammock with a mint julep,'' as one professor has put it, not much investigation into the health of the college teaching profession has been made -- until lately.
Three recent items include:
The publishing last week of ``American Professors: A National Resource Imperiled,'' the most comprehensive and scholarly examination of college teachers since David Riesman's 1968 report, ``The Academic Revolution.'' Howard Bowen and Jack Schuster, the authors of the new work, report that, over the past decade: ``the quality of academic life has deteriorated''; the average professor's real earnings have declined further, since 1972, ``than any other occupational group in America''; and, in the next 25 years, 500,000 of today's 700,000 American professors will retire, leaving a huge job vacuum.
The steady leaking of bleak statistics from a massive study on colleges by Ernest Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (due out next fall), that draws from interviews with some 5,000 professors: 40 percent of the professors interviewed are considering leaving their jobs in the next five years; 40 percent say faculty morale has gone down in the past five years; 60 percent believe that their salaries are too low.
The recent front-page suggestions by the New York Times and the Boston Globe that serious jockeying for a diminishing number of promising and high-quality faculty members is already beginning to take place among the nation's better schools. A third of the faculty at Columbia University in New York, for example, will reach mandantory retirement age by 1995 -- and considerable sums of money are already being spent by Columbia to attract young ``academic stars.''
Experts point out that college enrollment will begin to rise steadily beginning in the early 1990s. By the mid-'90s, this growth will coincide with the retirement of over half the current college professoriate.
So far, this ``professor gap'' is still largely unseen by most college adminstrators, said ``American Professors'' co-author Jack Schuster in a recent interview. With more immediate and pressing problems today, a problem ten years down the road is hard to see, he said, adding that there are still many excellent professors ``in the pipeline.'' New York University, for example, recently had more than 100 applicants for an assistant professorship in the humanities. ``The pipeline is drying up, however,'' said Schuster.
Still, an ``absolute shortage'' of professors is not likely. ``The population as of 1985 contains more than six million persons who have received master's degrees,'' according to ``American Professors,'' ``well over a million who have received first professional degrees,'' and ``750,000 who hold PhDs. Seven to eight million persons hold one or more advanced degrees.'' The report says that 90 percent of these persons are employed outside academia, constituting a ``pool'' from which colleges could draw.
As in the public school teacher shortage, however, what educators are concerned about is the quality of professors entering the halls of higher learning. Both ``American Professors'' and the Carnegie investigation say that the decaying infrastructure of the modern university may mean mediocre teachers, especially in the applied sciences -- business, computers, engineering -- where students can make more money in the private sector.
College professors are critically important in shaping the outlook of students, most educators agree, and therefore attracting high quality professors is important both for students and for developing strong national human resources. ``We also need faculty who understand other cultures -- right now we aren't generating these people,'' says Schuster.
In the 38 colleges Schuster and Bowen visited, assistance given to faculty in such areas as secretarial and clerical help, instrumentation for research, and travel budgets was diminishing. Professors complained of disinterested, ill-prepared students, a feeling that colleges are abandoning educational ideals in order to serve market demands, lack of collegiality, and low pay.
Critics say such grumblings are in part a luxury -- that every job has its ``downside'' -- and that the $33,000 average salary that professors make is more than enough compensation for a career that has traditionally held up high ideals and the life of the mind as goals worthy of pursuit unto themselves. Professors have never gone into teaching or research for the money, they say.